“What I like möst about the Breeteesh” said my colleague as we all got in the lift to go for morning coffee, “is ze wonderful sense of humour.”
The lift doors opened and the five of us made our way to the cafeteria. It’s strange. Even after 20 years in the European Regulatory Authority, whenever I hear such a statement, I always have to search for what to say next.
“The Breeteesh humour is so gentle, so sympathique” she continued.
“I don’t know if you can call it British” I replied modestly “I see plenty of the same kind of humour in Belgium”. I paused, before adding “If you like, I’ve got a very nice analysis of the British by two French professors, and it’s spot on, I don’t know anyone else who has described them so well.”
She looked straight at me, her whimsical air encouraging me to carry on.
“According to them, the source of British humour is that ‘the British live in the midst of contradictions’ – you know, like they are the world’s most hospitable xenophobes – ‘and feel at home with them”.
Her eyes darted to one side and back, a smirk appearing on her face. The others were chatting amongst themselves about the cinema, or music, or something of that sort.
“Apparently the British have ‘a clear sighted yet smiling acceptance of life’s little ironies’” I spouted “which I must say comes in very useful for working in a place like the ERA.”
By now she was smiling. She threw out a lightly teasing comment towards the rest of the group “Ow zeese Breeteesh can tek zings so seriously, even zair sense of humour”.
“Yes, you’re quite right”, I retorted. “Being inclined to seriousness when he laughs’ it seems ‘An Englishman laughs at himself when he is serious.”
At that moment I became aware that the colleagues around us had stopped talking and were looking at us.
“Don’t you see?” I enquired, somewhat rhetorically. “The professors say the British practice a humour that is nothing less than Conscious Intellectual Irony”.
She grunted gently, trying to suppress her laughter, “Jes, Jes” she said. “Yes, yes” added my colleagues, as they cried in unison “We all know exactly what you mean, Brian”.
A few days later I was leaving the office, a little earlier than usual, when I spotted in the foyer a former stagiaire sitting on one of the black leather sofas, consulting his telephone.
“Paolo” I called, approaching him. He looked up and got to his feet.
“Brian”, he said, “How are you, my old friend?”
“Fine, fine, and you?”
“Oh, we finished the expert meeting early, and I’m trying to see if I can make it to an earlier flight back to Lisbon”, he answered, slightly exasperated.
”I didn’t realise you were in town, let me know when you’re here next, we can go for lunch”.
“Yes Brian,” he continued, a tinge of irritation coming through “but it’s been a very difficult trip.”
“I can imagine the risk of the strike must have caused you some worry”.
“More than worry,” he added, “it’s been a complete pain in the arse.”
It was clear Paolo was far from happy with Belgium’s customary autumn dispute between the government and the unions, who had threatened an all-out strike and then called it off, leaving the public, as usual, unsure of what would happen.
“I was just trying to get some advice from SNCB on-line about trains to Zaventem”, Paolo resumed “but what use is that? All they say is ‘Perturbations sur le réseau’ . But they may as well call that a ‘non-information page’ if that is all they are going to put!”
Years of living in Belgium meant I knew very well what he was talking about. Even so, I found it hard to see what had caused him so much difficulty.
“It all started this morning. In the train from the airport, when the young conductrice came on the tannoy, with a passenger announcement. You’ll never believe what happened next.”
“Mesdames et messieurs’ she began ‘Suite à une action de grève aujourd’hui et demain, les perturbations du réseau sont à attendre’. So far so good, but then the young lady added ‘Quant à l’ampleur de la grève demain, qui sait ce qui va se passer.”
“Qui sait ! ” Paolo squawked. “Who knows what will happen tomorrow?” he growled. “What sort of comment is that from an employee of a railway company? For goodness sake, if she knows nothing, what the hell am I supposed to do?”
I could see that Paolo really had had a bad day. I surmised that the stress from all those technical meetings was getting to this once affable intern.
“You’ll get home OK, it’ll work out. Just don’t go to Schuman, better Gare Centrale, there are bound to be some trains running, and if you have to wait too long, buy a gaufre, they make life more bearable. After all, this is Belgium, Paolo”.
He didn’t seem at all satisfied. “And then there’s that fool in the cafeteria”.
I wondered where he was going next.
“When I went up to the counter to order an espresso the guy just looked at me and asked me if I wanted it vite ou lente. What does he think he’s playing at?”
A face came to mind, that of Guillaume, an old Bruxellois recently transferred to our cafeteria.
“Was he a tall, thin guy, grey hair, droopy moustache, sagging face, like that” I asked, adding a quick gesture to assist in identification.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Well, that’s Guillaume, or William as he often calls himself. Yeah, he says things like that sometimes. He’s our in-house farceur.”
Paolo looked at me, nonplussed. I decided to expand.
“Did you see a glint in his eye?” I asked. “Some call it a Belgian sense of humour, Paolo, but I have a theory of my own…..”
Before I parted from Paolo that evening his frustration with the idiosyncrasies of Belgium moved me to suggest that the next time he visited Brussels he should go and take in some Magritte.
“Who’s Magritte?” he had asked.
“He’s a Belgian surrealist painter” I replied “One of the best. Just go and have a look, there’s a Magritte museum in Mont des Arts”. I wondered how he could have spent five months in Brussels and never heard of Magritte.
“Then when you come out, ask yourself: what’s Magritte telling me about those little ‘unexpected’ moments in Belgium?”
A couple of months passed. Then an email popped up.
“I’m coming next Tuesday to the technical committee and I’m free for lunch. Can we meet? I have lots to tell you about Magritte. Paolo.”
Tuesday arrived and, as he sauntered down the corridor, I could see the old Paolo approaching me.
“How are you my very good old friend?” he declared, in an upbeat version of his customary greeting.
Passing quickly through the self-service Paolo told me about how, without any trouble at all, he had got to Zaventem airport the night of the strike. But, now sat at the table, he went straight into the topic most on his mind.
“Wow Brian,” he began “Magritte.”
I gently breathed in, waiting to hear what he would say.
“It was amazing. I didn’t know anything about him. But it was so bizarre, even getting into the exhibition was suréelle”.
I was intrigued. Only weeks before he hadn’t even recognised Magritte’s name, let alone spoken the lingo.
“I found the place and was just going in when a lady guard stopped me and said ‘Désolé monsieur, fermé’. Closed ? ‘Mais votre website ne dit rien d’un jour fermé en septembre,’ I said. ‘C’est la journée de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. Vous savez monsieur, les fêtes’ and she shrugged her shoulders”.
“I don’t get it, so how did you get in then?”
“Well, I saw the shop in front of the museum and when I entered I saw a scanner, and what looked like an entrance. I enquired and the guard said ‘Oui, oui, vous pouvez entrer.’ Inside there was a kiosk selling entry tickets for the exhibition”.
“I still don’t get it, Paolo” I said, frowning. “The Magritte Museum was shut but the Magritte exhibition was open?”
“Yeah” he said, looking at me quizzically, as if I was being a bit slow.
“So what did you see? Ceci n’est pas une pipe?” I asked.
Yeah, I saw La Trahison des Mots and that one with the two boots that look like feet. Brilliant! I mean, how can a guy who dresses in a bowler hat and a black suit, with a face that looks just like any old Belgian, produce such fantastic stuff?” he announced.
For a brief moment he chuckled like a kid, adding “But the one I liked best had a really weird effect on me. You know, there’s a guy in a jacket in front of a mirror looking at himself, but all he sees is his back, not his front.”
“I mean, for one moment, I could swear I saw the back of myself, watching the back of the guy, watching his own back and, well, I nearly freaked out. I couldn’t get the image out of my head for hours.”
By now I was feeling quite astonished by the impact of Magritte on Paolo.
“And you were so right”, he said. “As I left the exhibition, I started to see all the ‘unexpected’ things you told me happen here. There was a loose pavement slab that sent a squirt of muddy water up my trouser leg when I stepped on it. Then a cyclist was hurtling towards me at full speed, wearing a reflective vest with ‘Peace in the world’ all over it. Why didn’t I see the funny side of all this before?”
I was searching in my mind for a reply. Paolo had obviously had more time to think about all this and was coming over much clearer.
“Yeah, it’s like Magritte shows you something that looks real, then adds something you know can’t be real, that makes you ask yourself: Does something have to become nonsense, for me to see how real it really is?”
He continued. “When you step on one of those damned loose pavement slabs, it’s only when you see the man watching the man looking at the water shoot up his trouser leg, and say to yourself ‘This can’t be happening,’ that you realise it’s all so ridiculous, and you laugh it off”.
“Yeah” I concurred “It seems Magritte wanted us to see life’s little contradictions.”
This reminded me about the conversation with my colleagues some weeks back. I explained to Paolo how close I thought British and Belgian humour were.
“But Brian” he replied “the Belgians intellectualise in other ways and spend much more time living a good life, than the Brits do. Belgians eat better, drink better, dress better, and work less, so they can spend more time with their friends and family”.
I agreed, as a phrase started to play in my mind.
“I guess you could say that the humour of Magritte and the Belgians, then, is ‘Conscious artistic irony’”.
“Too true, Brian” rejoined Paolo, adding “How often does life make you feel like that man with the big green apple, full in his face!” he cried, as we got up to clear the table and passed through to the cafeteria, unaware that William that day was in particularly fine form.