Sunday, February 14, 2016

Brussels and Back

I recently went to FOSDEM in Brussels. This isn't about FOSDEM (which was great); it's some of the things that I noticed there, and while travelling.

I ended up flying from Gatwick. It would be nice if, living in Cambridge, flying from Stansted was an option, but it isn't. I looked at going by train, but the cost difference was significant, so that was ruled out.

It was public transport all the way. While our experience of parking at Gatwick has got much better over the last year, I really couldn't see the point of driving down, especially as I was driving down on my own.

First step was a bus to Cambridge railway station. Fortunately, the bus turned up at our stop reasonably promptly. Often, the bus disservice run by Stagecoach is such that "a bus every ten minutes" translates into average waiting times of 20 minutes. Half way to the station, we come to the stop by Budgens to find it swamped by small children. This was the first time I had seen a school outing using a regular service bus.

I've recently got a network railcard. When I just used to go down to London in the evening, this would have been marginal in terms of savings. More daytime trips (commuting, although normally outside the rush hour) makes it much more attractive. With this journey as well, it almost paid for itself in the first two trips.

I took the underground to Victoria, to get the Gatwick Express. Coming up to the concourse, I thought I had just missed the train (although it's not a long wait to the next one). Then I hear over the station tannoy "Would the driver of the 11:44 Gatwick Express please report to platform 13 where his train is ready to depart". That's a new one! So I made that train with a minute or two to spare.

I'm used to going through tourist areas and being accosted by restaurants touting for trade. Some of the Brussels restaurants were plain stupid. They would almost rugby tackle us, or stand in front arms spread wide physically blocking our path. Seriously, is such abusive behaviour likely to encourage custom?

After the conference, I had a few hours in Brussels itself, as my flight home was reasonably late on Monday. It's a sorry place which has the Mannekin Pis as a major tourist attraction. The city museum was also closed on Monday, which was a little annoying.

I was, however, mightily impressed by the Stripmuseum. That's comic strips, by the way. It's not just Tintin, either. It's in an old classic building, and while most of the material isn't in English, the exhibition itself is trilingual.

Avoiding the aforementioned overtly tourist restaurants, I fancied a steak for lunch. There was a sign outside the Brussels Grill that has a big sign outside offering a steak special lunch for 11.5 euros. I was shown to a table and then promptly ignored. The place was fairly busy, with lots of people coming in, just not a lot of service happening. I was just about to walk out when the waiter came over. On trying to order, he then tells me they've run out of the special offer (limited quantity for the offer each day). I have my coat on and am almost at the door when he goes for the Hail Mary pass. Just down the street, only a few doors down, is another branch of the same chain, the Raphael, which is much quieter and won't have run out. And he takes the time to make sure I can see exactly where it is (it's not got any of the outdoor seating, so it's much less obvious).

It's only a few yards down the street, so what have I got to lose? And yes, it's far less crowded, in a far more interesting building, they do have the offer on, and service is prompt and attentive. I ended up having an excellent lunch.

Then to take the train back to the airport. The ticket machines at the station don't take notes, just coins. (Really, how hard is this?) I don't quite have enough coinage to cover the ticket, so have to queue at the counter. And they have just the one counter open, who is having to do everything from simple tickets like mine to someone in front who has some really complicated task that takes forever.

Cheap airlines charge for checked luggage (and it would have doubled the cost for me, but I was travelling light so just had a rucksack with a change of clothing, and that went easily under the seat). It seems that almost everyone is basically gaming the system by pushing the envelope on carry-on luggage sizes. There's clearly more luggage than will fit, so the last few people get their cases shoved in the hold.

One side-effect of this is that almost everyone stands in a queue for 20-30 minutes in order to get one early enough for there to be spaces in the overhead lockers. This despite the call from the desk for everyone to stay seated. I really don't understand why people do this. I finished two puzzles in the paper while having a relaxing sit down.

It's only a short hop, then more queueing at Gatwick. There's this push to make people use the e-Passport gates rather than see a real person. That would be fine if (a) the machines actually worked reliably (b) they worked reasonably quickly, and (c) there were enough machines to cope. Instead, there are a tiny handful of machines, either they're not working or people can't operate them, and it's very much slower than seeing a real person. I've nothing against the electronic version in principle, but if that's the way they want to go it's essential to equip the system with enough capacity.

Getting back home, I hopped onto the Thameslink train to St Pancras rather than wait for the Gatwick express. It was just pulling into the platform, so I decided to take that as it was there. It was fine until we got into central London, at which point the commuters going home up to Bedford pile on, and it's sardine territory. Fighting my way off the train at St Pancras was quite a challenge.

I'm thinking the trip is going pretty well as I jump straight onto a train at King's Cross, only for us to then to shortly come to a grinding halt due to signal failure around Welwyn North. Nothing about this on the boards at King's Cross, but it was almost an hour's delay.

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