Priti Manek stumbled, dropped the coins he was clutching and crouched close to the floor of the carriage. We leaned forward in our seats and helpfully pointed to where his coins had rolled, smiled and then sat back in our seats to continue admiring the view from the elevated track into the grounds of the Antwerp Zoo below us.
There were still a few minutes before the train left Antwerp Central Station and we hoped Priti Manek had managed to collect his cash and find a seat before departure. In the commotion we had failed to notice that his assistant Monday Moron had helped himself to our laptop bag from the train’s overhead rack whilst we were helping his chum find his lost coins.
As the whistle blew and the train started to move so did my ‘phone:
“Hello, is that Simon Anderson?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“Detective Inspector Sparky Van Taser of Antwerp Police here…”
“Look, I’m really sorry I meant to pay for breakfast at the hotel this morning but I couldn’t find any staff to take the money…”
“No, no, no I have your laptop here and we’re holding the thief in custody that took it from you so just come the station and ask for me.”
“A Ha! I think you’re mistaken there my fine Belgian Policeman, I have my laptop right here on the train above my… Oh Shit!”
“Are you still on the train?”
Yes, but it’s just leaving the station – how do I get to you?”
“Get off at Bercham.”
“Get off and birch ‘im? I thought that was your job?”
“Antwerp-Bercham is the next station. Get off the train there and return to Antwerp-Central, we’re waiting for you.”
Tapioca Spronk was a sturdy Belgian woman with many years service for the Belgian Police Force. She looked up from her computer, frowned and waddled towards us as we stood at the enquiry desk. We explained the situation and she nodded knowingly. She negotiated her way past her desk, opened the door and beckoned for us to follow her towards the cells and interview rooms. She led us into a room and departed to make coffee. After a few minutes the rather portly desk sergeant Chip Van Empty arrived, sat down heavily and took our statements. We were joined by Sparky Van Taser who confirmed he was holding Monday Moron who was frequently being arrested for theft. He was pleased to learn of the existence of his accomplice about whom he knew nothing. After we had checked the contents of the laptop bag and confirmed that nothing had been taken we were asked to identify the suspect. We explained this was going to be very difficult. Jane had only caught a brief glimpse of him laughing at Priti Manek when he dropped his coins and I explained that as he was standing behind me at the time, I hadn’t seen him at all. Through the two-way mirror we saw Chip Van Empty lead the handcuffed suspect in to the room and left him standing there whilst we peered at him through the glass. Positively identifying him was nigh impossible so Chip Van Empty disappeared briefly and through the mirror we watched him talk to the suspect for a moment or two. The Sergeant became quite animated and we wondered what was going on when he slapped his ample thighs and cracked up laughing. We soon twigged that he was telling Monday Moron a joke and when he reached the punch line our criminal instinctively laughed and smiled. We both jumped up and yelled: “That’s him!” Sparky Van Taser grinned, thanked us for our help and wished us a good trip.
Mannekin-Pis is of course just one more of the curious Confreries that abound in these flatlands. Since I last wrote I have found Confreries for all manner of food and wine, the enjoyment of war-craft, hunting and the adoration of pipe smoking, small birds in cages, the giant omelette, weird-shaped vegetables, the art of terrifying spectators with pig’s bladders and even admiration for those who chop down cabbages. Personally, I’d like to start a Confrerie for Belgian economic sense. I think there’s something terribly right about a country where Coca Cola in supermarkets is twice the price of Stella or Hoegaarden beer. Even in restaurants bottled water is more expensive than the same-sized glass of a decent Belgian brew – now that’s worth celebrating. To finish off this subject I have a couple more pictures to share with you
This is a meeting of the elders of the Confrerie of the Dead Rat. (Note the rodent motif on their blue sashes). Another hair-raising concept is the Brotherhood of Bald People Who Carry Giant Combs. (I can only assume they do that in case they meet a very large dead rat that could do with a bit of a tidy-up).
Moving on, but still confined to Belgium, we discovered that much of this flat country is wet and quite swampy so don’t go walking without back up.
Back up in Leuven while we waited for parts to arrive and for the van to be repaired we found a few monuments to honour famous Belgians. This country isn’t renowned for having produced large numbers of people who have made their mark on civilisation (apart from Brewers), but I’ll name a handful that have; Audrey Hepburn, Adolphe Sax, Tin Tin (well Hergé his creator) and Mr. Baekeland who invented Bakelite. Another is Gerardus Mercator a cartographer/mapmaker who in 1544 was charged with heresy – based solely on the authorities deep suspicions about his frequent travels. (See, I told you travel wasn’t good for you). Judging by the placement of his statue it seems he’s still not remembered fondly in these parts.
Speaking of brewers (and why not), I suspect Sebastian Artois deliberately instructed architects to design the brewery’s head office with the letter box just slightly out of reach of anyone wanting to drop off invoices…
Another local luminary, Edouard Remy was a 19th Century industrialist from Leuven who was notable because he (so they say), cared deeply about the living conditions of his employees. Here, he is remembered with this monument depicting his happy, devoted and overtly carefree workers who look as if they’ve just been told the town has run out of Stella.
We were just finishing lunch today and the garage called to say the van is ready. We were so excited I nearly choked on my plate of Lamsnootjes. I can tell you it’s lamb, but not as we know it. (I didn’t enquire which part of the animal gives us “snootjes” and it’s probably best left to imagination). Incidentally it was served with a damn fine pepper sauce which unfortunately overpowered the lamb in much the same way as dynamite overpowers doughnuts but snootjes don’t appear on the menu very often so they had to be tried.
The van is running and so are we. Bonnie, bountiful Belgium has thrust us away from her ample bosom. After three weeks of embeerment, (I made it up) and strange cultural delights we are free to roam again. We’re heading out of town just as Belgium slips into yet another 4 day weekend. I think our escape is timely. Last Friday in one of our favourite restaurants I sent back a Hoegaarden because it was off. The combined raising of eyebrows by the staff and other patrons caused quite a draft about the draught. The next evening another of our favourite restaurants gave Jane a pot plant for Mother’s Day. Clearly, we’ve been here too long and as the holiday weekend approaches I see that this group who celebrate the Compulsory Inclusion of Spring Onions in Every Farmer’s Lunch-box are just starting their warm up routine.