Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Belgian Incident - a true story.

"...but though even words like jujuflop, swut and turlingdrome are now
perfectly acceptable in common usage, there is one word that is still
beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the
publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts
of the galaxy except one, where they don't know what it means.
That word is... BELGIUM."
(Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Tenth)

What was it about Belgium that had such an effect on Douglas Adams? I've often wondered what (if anything) Belgian people make of that little slur against their country, however innocently intentioned it may have been. Did Adams just pluck the name out of the air, or was there something more to it? My recollection is that many of the ideas for the Guide were said to have originated while Adams was hitchhiking his way around Europe in the early seventies. Did something especially formative happen to Adams while travelling through Belgium? Was the experience so bad that the only way to achieve catharsis was through the medium of a science fiction radio series?

Speaking for myself, three of the worst hours of my life happened in Belgium. That experience most definitely coloured the way I think about the country – but in rather a different way to Adams. What follows is the true story of those three hours – but before we get to Belgium it is necessary to deal with the small matter of the trip to Paris without which the Belgian Incident would never have happened. Along the way we shall encounter the case of the impacted tree, the Spiral of Doom, the night watchman and the wandering vagrant, the dead woman, the interchange from hell, and the two Belgian drinkers.
* * *

It was the autumn of 1994. I’d been living in the Netherlands for three years and had just succeeded in getting my driving license. It had been an uphill struggle. There were times when I thought I would never learn to drive.

I’d started taking lessons while still living in Wales in the 1980s, but lack of time and money (and, frankly, interest) meant that I never got very far. I went away to do my degree studies in the north of England and another three years passed. Once I’d got my degree I had another go at getting my license, just before moving to the wilds of Scotland. I failed that attempt (can’t remember why, but I don’t think there were any fatalities) and put my motoring ambitions on hold for another three years, while I soldiered through to my doctorate in observational astronomy. In truth I didn’t really need a car, and couldn’t have afforded to run one anyway. But in 1991 I left Scotland and moved to the Netherlands, and after settling down for a few months I decided I really needed to tackle this driving thing. My new job with ESA, the European Space Agency, was likely to take me abroad quite often, and it would make life much easier if I could drive while on those trips.

There followed two years of total frustration. The first thing I needed to know was the rules of the road in the Netherlands, which differed in a number of ways from the British system. The good news was that there was an English translation of the Dutch driving manual. The bad news was that a number of key rules had just been changed, and they hadn’t yet printed a translation incorporating those changes. I had to make do with the up-to-date Dutch version and the out-of-date English version, comparing the two and trying to spot the differences, all the while struggling with a language I’d only started learning a few months earlier.

Despite this I passed the theory part of the test on my first go, with a respectably high score. Passing the practical part of the exam was another thing entirely. My first attempt was abysmal, and I wasn’t surprised to be failed on it. The second and third attempts went a bit better, but I still didn’t come up to the grade. Learning when and when not to give priority to cyclists was my big problem. However I did eventually pass – was it on the fourth or fifth attempt? I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember – I’m already getting a Vietnam-style flashback about the whole traumatic experience. What I do remember is that I still managed to drive the car into a tree during the examination, and pass, which really takes some doing. It was during the parking of the car back in the test centre, which technically is still considered part of the examination. There was a bit of a crunch. The examiner turned to me and said: “That really wasn’t very clever, was it Mr Reynolds?”

Anyway, I passed, and spent the rest of the summer slowly building up confidence. I drove to and from work. I drove from Noordwijk to Leiden. I drove from Leiden to Den Bosch. So far, so good. Then came the Paris trip, of which the Belgium Incident is but one part.

It began like this. J and I had somehow become involved with a charity that had arranged the collection of unwanted children’s clothes (unwanted clothes, not unwanted children) for forwarding to a needy country somewhere in the world. People where we work had kindly donated a huge amount of clothing, and now someone needed to drive it all to the headquarters of the charity in Paris. J and I had agreed to do this part, and after finishing work on a Friday we picked up a rental van, loaded it with the clothes, and set off on the long drive between Noordwijk and Paris. I’d had my licence for three or four months by then, so felt reasonably confident about taking over the driving every now and then – although I definitely wasn’t going to be driving when we actually got to Paris, having already heard more than enough nightmare stories about Parisian traffic.

Everything went very smoothly. Too smoothly, as it happened. We got to Paris late on Friday evening. ESA has one of its sites in Paris, so we’d arranged to park the van in ESA’s underground car park until Saturday morning, when we would collect it and drive to the headquarters of the aforementioned charity, where we’d arranged to meet a woman who would take the clothes from the van. We quickly located ESA’s building. The night watchman on duty was expecting us – he told us to drive around to the back of the building, where we’d see the ramp that led down to the underground car park. Everything was looking very good. Park the van, walk the short distance to the hotel. Have a beer. What could be easier?

Unfortunately we drove the van down the wrong ramp. It was my fault entirely: I was navigating, not J, and she had reservations about the ramp I insisted we drive down. “Are you sure it’s this one?” she asked. “The next one along looks much more promising.”

“Trust me,” I said – always a bad move.

The ramp took the form of a spiral, circling through seven hundred and twenty degrees as it bored its way underground. It was very steep and very tightly curved, but we took things slowly, inching the van down until we reached the bottom of the ramp and the locked metal gate that prevented us continuing further.

“Maybe it isn’t this ramp after all,” I mused.

No, it clearly wasn’t the right ramp. There was nothing for it to drive back up the spiral. That, however, was where our problems began. There was no room to turn the van around, so we had to reverse back up. This would have been tricky enough – rear visibility was poor – but we soon found that the van couldn’t get back up the ramp. It had been raining, and the rainwater had run down the smooth concrete surface of the spiral, making it slippery. The van simply couldn’t get enough traction to reverse to street level. The rear wheels spun impressively, the clutch made a lot of smoke, but nothing happened. So there we were – late on a dismal Friday night in Paris, with our van stuck down a hole. So much for the beer I’d been looking forward to…

J had an idea. Since the problem was one of getting enough grip onto the rear wheels, why didn’t I stand on the rear bumper while she tried reversing the van? This we duly tried. I got my feet onto the bumper, gripped the roof of the van above the rear doors, and hung on for dear life – terrified that the van was suddenly going to gain traction and lurch backwards. But although matters improved slightly, it wasn’t enough to get us out of the hole. We were still stuck.

That’s when we remembered the night watchman. While I waited with the van, J sprinted back up to street level, around to the front desk of the building and explained our predicament. Five or ten minutes later, she arrived back with the night watchman. Since we hadn’t had any brighter ideas, we decided to pursue the ‘standing on the bumper’ methodology. Now there were two of us – me and a lightly built French night watchman. J gunned the van and tried reversing again. By now a worrying quantity of smoke was coming from the clutch, but the van was making slow but definite progress in the right direction. Unfortunately it still reached a slipping point, unable to reverse any further. That was when the night watchman had a bright idea. Since two of us hanging on the rear bumper wasn’t enough, we should enlist a third man. So off went the night watchman to wander the streets of Paris until he found a willing volunteer. Quite how he persuaded this complete stranger to follow him down a dark spiral into the ground I don’t know – but somehow he did, and the man obliged by joining us on the rear bumper.

Success! With three of us, the wheels had just enough traction to do the job. It still took an eternity, inching back to the surface, with the engine and the transmission making horrible sounds. But finally we reversed the van onto the street again and were directed to the ramp we should have gone down in the first place. We thanked the night watchman and his nameless accomplice.

Half an hour later, I got my beer. “That’ll be quite some story to dine out on,” we told each other, imagining that nothing else likely to happen to us in the same weekend could possibly compare to that.

Little did we know…

The morning of the day after, we collected the van (which was still drivable) and navigated the streets of Paris until we reached the headquarters of the charity. But no one was there. The place was closed, with no message to redirect us elsewhere. We waited and waited – half an hour, then an hour. What were we supposed to do now? Finally, J found a contact number (I forget where) and then a public telephone and enquired about the woman we were supposed to be meeting.

J returned to the van. “She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“The woman we were supposed to be meeting is dead. She died yesterday.”

Somehow or other, we did manage to find someone from the charity who was willing to take the clothes out of the van. By around the middle of the day, therefore, we’d finished our obligations. We returned the van to the underground car park, did a bit of shopping, then arranged to meet a friend for dinner. Dinner went very well, and we told her all about the ‘ramp’ incident. The day after, Sunday, our friend took part in the Paris half-Marathon, so we stood at the starting line to wave her past. Later we checked out of the hotel, returned to the van and began the drive back to the Netherlands. It must have been around five or six in the afternoon.

We had a plan for the drive back. J drove the first half hour or so, until we were safely out of Paris. Then I took over. The intention was that I’d drive until we had crossed the border into Belgium, at which point we’d be needing fuel anyway. It was a damp, foggy night, but the roads were not too busy, and the drive out of France went uneventfully. After a couple of hours we crossed the border and I saw signs for Kortrijk. I’d never heard of “Kortrijk” before, but then I was completely unfamiliar with the route: J was doing all the navigating, and she knew this journey very well. Around about then we also saw a service station, where we would be able to tank up and have a cup of coffee.

I pulled the van off the motorway, drove slowly through the service area until we reached the line of pumps. I stopped the van and turned off the engine. J got out of the passenger side. She filled up the van while I waited in the driver’s seat.

“I’ll go and pay,” she said, indicating the kiosk next to the line of pumps. “You go and park the van, and then meet me in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.”

I nodded: this seemed like an excellent plan. I waited until I could see that she had paid the man in the kiosk, then I started up the van and began driving away from the pumps. A few moments later icy terror gripped my heart. I realised that the road I was driving down led back to the motorway we’d just been on. There was no way to get back to the service area! By now I was quite some way from the pumps and didn’t like the idea of reversing, especially with all the fog. Trying to stay calm, I resolved not to do anything rash – I’d only just got my license, after all. I would get onto the motorway, drive as far as the next exit, then return down the other direction and double-back until I reached the service station again.

This too, seemed like an excellent plan. But when I reached the next junction my hopes shrivelled. Here was a major interchange, with roads sweeping in from all directions. I didn’t even know the number of the road I was on: all I knew was that we’d come from the general direction of Paris. But we weren’t even in France now. I took the exit, and kept my eyes peeled for any sign with ‘Paris’ on it. No such luck! The best I could do was try and judge when I’d driven through one hundred and eighty degrees, and take what I hoped was the slip road back onto the same motorway. With the fog, landmarks were few and far between. But after I’d been driving for a few kilometres, I saw nothing that I recognised: certainly no sign of a service station. Clearly I was on the wrong road; hopelessly lost.

Real panic began to set in. What was I going to do? I didn’t even have a map: J knew the route so well she hadn’t packed one. All I knew was that I was somewhere in Belgium – and that I’d abandoned my partner in the service station. What was going through her mind now? Keep in mind this was 1994 - no widespread use of cellphones or satnav back then (and I'm a late adopter at the best of times).

Presently I saw a sign for Kortrijk – the same town we’d been approaching just before the services. In a fit of hopeless optimism, I pulled into Kortrijk and set about looking for some kind of street map which might give me a clue as to how to get back to the service station. By now it was a thoroughly dark and miserable Sunday evening. I drove a little way into town (unsure of how big Kortrijk was) until I saw a sign indicating the direction to the police station. They might be able to help, if nothing else. But I couldn’t find the police station. Time and again I returned to my starting place and tried to find it, but no matter how far I drove, the police station refused to emerge out of the night before the town thinned out to countryside. How big was Kortrijk, exactly? In all my driving around, I’d never once seen anyone out walking, or even much other traffic.

In desperation I spotted a bar with lights on. At least someone might be able to help. I walked into the bar. It was obviously doing quiet Sunday evening business: two or three regulars at the bar, not much else going on. I tried English and didn’t get very far. In my faltering Dutch I made a tiny bit more progress. I explained my predicament as best I could: that I was lost, that I’d abandoned my partner at the service station, and that I was trying to find the police station. One of the men at the bar gave me directions to the police: it seemed I’d been heading in the right direction, but I just hadn’t gone far enough. I thanked him and returned to the van. Once more I set off for the police station. Once more the kilometres ticked by and the town began to thin out until I was driving through fields. What the hell was going on? I began to hate Kortrijk, and – by implication – Belgium. It began to feel as if the entire situation was somehow the fault of the country and everyone living in it. Douglas Adams was right, I thought. Bloody Belgium!

I returned to the bar. By this time I’d really reached the end of my tether. A phone call to some friends in the Netherlands provided no clarification: they hadn’t heard from J, and their map didn’t offer much of a clue as to what road I must have been on. The men at the bar looked surprised to see me again. I told them I still couldn’t find the police station. They looked at me with incomprehension, as if I had some kind of mental impairment. Then one of them asked if I had a car. “Yes,” I said. (I forget whether this was in English or Dutch). “A van.”

He said he’d drive to the police station. All I had to do was follow him. I returned to the van, and sooner or later his car appeared out of the fog, with his drinking mate in the passenger seat. He flashed his headlights and I slipped the van into gear and set off behind him. At least I didn’t have to worry about running out of gas, I thought ruefully: that was no problem.

It was a long way to the police station: far longer than I’d expected. But eventually we arrived and parked our vehicles outside. I still didn’t know what kind of help the police were going to offer me, but I liked to think it would involve a bustling incident room, a crisis hotline and several hovering helicopters with infrared cameras. Unfortunately all I got from the officer on duty was an indifferent shrug, as if I’d come in to report the loss of a pencil. Thinking I had no more Belgian money on me (this turned out not to be the case, but it was what I believed at the time) I asked if I might make another telephone call to the Netherlands, in case J had rung our friends. But the officer wouldn’t let me use the telephone.

I began to feel genuine despair again. I’d got to the police station, after two hours of effort. But I was still no closer to finding my way back to the service station. Those two hours felt like entire months of my life. It was beginning to get late. Was I better off spending more time trying to get back to the service station, or should I just accept the inevitable, drive on to the Netherlands and trust J to find a way home on her own? She’d travelled to Nepal and Afghanistan on her own, after all: getting home from Belgium was hardly stretching her talents. But had she even picked up her coat from the van before going to pay for the fuel?

That was when one of the two Belgian drinking mates had his own bright idea. He’d spotted a big map pinned up on the wall of the police station, showing all the roads in the area. “You said you were coming from France?” he asked me. “And that you stopped at the first service station after the border?”

“Yes,” I said.

He stood before the map and pondered it for a few minutes. “The way I see it,” he said, “there’s really only one road you could have been on. And there’s only one service station on that road within twenty kilometres of here. Could you have driven further?”

“No,” I said, doubtfully.

“Then it must have been the one I’m thinking of. Tell you what: we’ll drive there. It’ll only take us twenty minutes, and if she isn’t there, we haven’t lost anything.”

The two drinking mates talked to each other. One decided to sit with me in the cab of the van while the other drove his car. We set off. We drove a long way, on main roads. By now it was seriously foggy, with visibility close to zero. We reached a large intersection and then what looked suspiciously like the motorway I’d been on all those hours ago. We went down it, and then up the other way. Then the service station appeared out of the fog. It was a desolate scene: most of the lights were off, there were no cars waiting there, no sign of life at all. But it was clearly the right place. And there, standing shivering in the fog, was J. The cafeteria had closed hours ago; they’d turfed her out into the night without a coat.

I stopped the van, overjoyed that we’d found each other again. I think the Belgian drinking mates were just as pleased with the happy outcome. I remember both of us being desperate to communicate our gratitude, but the Belgians simply got back in their car, gave us a cheery wave and disappeared into the night. J and I quickly exchanged stories about what happened, although she had more or less worked out my side of events for herself. Amazingly, two different people she knew had both pulled into the service station over the course of the evening and offered her a lift the rest of the way – but she’d declined, trusting I’d somehow find my way back. As we drove on in the warmth of the van, I remember experiencing a delirious sense of relief. It was a minor adventure in the scheme of things – laughable, really, since neither of us had been in harm’s way. But I still remember exactly how it felt to be lost in Belgium, on a foggy Sunday night.

As for our two Belgian drinking friends, I hope they got back to the bar in time to have another beer and a bit of a laugh. I must have spoiled their evening for them, but they never showed the least sign of annoyance. J and I have been back to Belgium many times in the ten years since this happened, but I don’t think a single time has gone by when we haven’t thought about that night and how helpful those two men were. I often wonder about them and think about their kindness that night. Say what you like about Belgium – and I still don’t know quite what it was that annoyed Douglas Adams so much – but I can think of worse places to get lost in the world. Even the police were helpful.

Actually, no, they weren’t, were they? But they did have a very nice map.

Adapted and updated from a piece I wrote for the Blakenberg Beneluxcon program book in 2004.


  1. Yeah, well, as a Belgian I can clearly imagine anybody getting lost on our roads. Signage is almost non-existant and requires a lifetime of experience to interpret.
    Hopefully that didn't spoil your opinion of us. But I suspect it might be a similar experience that drove Douglas Adams to hate Belgium :-)

  2. Iradonian - my opinion couldn't be higher; as I say, genuine kindness from two strangers. But yeah, signage could be improved...

  3. That's a lovely tale. Had to read the lot.

  4. Al:
    Great story. If you will excuse me for asking an off topic question:
    What is the projected release date for Blue Remembered Earth?
    I can't wait.


  5. For the six months I was living in Paris, I worked for a division of a company who, for reasons best known to themselves, were headquartered in Mechelen. I'd actually moved to Paris to live with my English girlfriend, who had a contract there, and had bought a small flat in the 17th arrondissement with the later intent of renting it out for some extra income. However, we saw it as a little love-nest. That lasted for three months of an intensely hot summer with no air-conditioning, whereupon she called it quits and returned to England, more or less calling over her shoulder that I could rent the flat at a discount. Gamely, I stayed on through the autumn, but with the prospect of a Christmas alone in Paris looming, I finally gave in and decided I needed to be around my family for a bit, lest I ended up hanging from a light fitting in the New Year. So it came to pass that I spent my 41st birthday in Mechelen, spending two days at HQ handing off my project, at a bar in the old part of town (with, I think, "House of Suns" for company), feeling a bit down. "What the hell", I thought, and ordered a Laphroaig and a cigar (smoking still being permitted in Belgian pubs), mentioning to the barman that it was my birthday. He winked, poured 18-year-old Laphroaig into a large tumbler until a meniscus formed, handed me a large cigar, and said "no charge". I could have kissed him. It was a small gesture of kindness, but it cheered me up hugely. I think I ended up making a lot of new friends that night, although the Laphroaig and a very, very late (early?) bedtime have erased the few memories I made of that evening. I still intend going back there someday.

  6. A glass of Laphroaig will put most things to rights ... especially if it's free. These little kindnesses do stick in the memory, don't they?

    A while ago I was stuck in London after a publishing event. Back at my hotel, too early to go to bed, I went down to the bar with a tenner in my pocket and the prospect of a good whisky. Spying a bottle of Lagavulin, I asked for a single measure. To my horror, it came to over ten pounds. I explained to the barman that I was deeply embarrassed and would have to return to my room for more money, but he smiled and told me not to worry.

  7. Man, one heck of an adventure. Thanks for posting this as tough as it was when you were in it. :)

  8. What a great way to write up what must be an oft-told story! I've had something similar happen to me, but it came about after leaving my girlfriend at an airport restaurant in Philadelphia and me accidentally walking into the luggage claim area and not being able to get back in! It's very cool to read something of yours set in the present day, as well.

    Just found your new blog after looking up your site to see what I can look forward to for Spring 2012, and am very happy to see that a totally new story line is coming :) Just about to start reading the RS series again, and I'm proud to say that I've introduced at least one new fan to your work.