Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Madness and Modernity

I have arrived in Brussels fair and well.

My flight was uneventful, which is the best one can wish for. The night was clear and the moon out there was just waning. Beside me was a young woman with bright eyes, off to begin her studies in law in the UK. She really seemed to make herself at home on the flight, transforming her small seat into a cosy nest, far better than the overhaul Air Canada did to stretch out its foremost passenger seats. She brought with her a full-length, furry fleece blanket, and crumpled more completely into her limited space than I've seen anyone else.

I had just purchased over the weekend a media item, and with the casual insertion of my personal headphones into the seat jack, there was a connection made with this technological world as a conversation started as to when and if personal audio devices were allowed on the flight. We eventually isolate ourselves from each other, and hike up the volume to completely soundproof ourselves from the unending cries of a boy across the aisle. He sounded like he was possessed by spirits whenever he was as awake. They found in him a depth of pain, fabulous lungs and a great capacity for air vibration. If children were allowed to be principal singers in opera, he would certainly be classified as one who could cut through a 100-piece orchestra.

The main errand of my stay in Brussels is to obtain a visa to Mali and Burkina Faso. The details help explain. I arrive in Mali in early December. A Malian visa is valid for 3 months from date of issue, which means I can only start applying for it now, as I will be there in less than 3 months. The timing was too risky to get it in Ottawa, as I would have needed it issued last Thursday and my flight was on Sunday - and so the Embassy there said that I can get it in Brussels.

I arrive at the Embassy in Brussels. At the door, there is a note about special Ramadan hours, which seem to coincide with the hours for dropping passports off but not picking them up. I press a button for "service", and all this implies in terms of desire, hope, and expectation. After the lobby I enter a room where there is no one waiting. A woman is typing and looks busy. I am told that they do not issue any visas to Canadians. I am to get one from the Embassy in Canada. A couple enter and one asks her questions. The servicewoman snarls again and says she is too busy to do that which is being asked.

No matter the quantity and quality of good will and advance organization, I will never be completely prepared for the irrationality of modern bureaucracy and what feels to be the flick of the whip at the end of a chain of frustration and power struggles. The options now are to courier my passport from Damascus to Ottawa (sure!), or obtain one at the airport in Bamako, Mali, something not encouraged in guidebooks but which is being looked into nonetheless.

I pass by the Burkina Faso Embassy, whose warm, smiling visa servicewoman says that yes, Canadians can certainly apply for a visa, so I initiate the request without delay. I have fond memories of applying for visas for Russia in Rome, and for Mongolia in Beijing. The Embassy of Mali in Brussels is outstanding in its truncated provision of visa services, in a city not faint in international character with its EU parliament.

It's late at night but I have jetlag. I'm staying with friends who initiated the trip to Mali and Burkina. They have a shop www.porcupine.be and this will be a trip to stock up on items and make new contacts.

Around me are books related to madness, marriage and/in Africa, themes revealed in a Senegalese writer, whose novels are the subject of a doctoral thesis. On the wall is a "cheat sheet" (if you can possibly cheat at this) of Amharic and Arabic characters. Unlike many who go to a coffee shop to get coffee beans, my friends go to Ethiopia, indigenous land of coffee arabica and its associated culture of hospitality. They buy what look like 50kg/100lb bags of these beans and, prior to orders, lug them to a roaster here in town so they are delivered as freshly roasted as possible. They are off to Addis Adaba to bean up, among other things, later this month.

Although I knew that one would be in the library yesterday, by chance we met in the vending machine / lunch area. I am quite grateful for the university libraries I have been through in Vancouver. It is a different story altogether this side of the pond. There is a 2.50€ day entry fee, for starters, which is why I hung out by the vending machines. And according to my friend, the largest library in Belgium has no books related to his thesis, and it is impossible to obtain interlibrary loan (he needs to go to London or Paris for this). So due to limited services of obtaining useful books, he is required to bring in his own books into the library and, every single day, as if the library staff don't know him, he undergoes a modern ritual ("policy") with them, who sign in each of his personal books and check the system to make sure the library does not carry them.

There are a lot of chocolate shops and comic book stores here in Brussels. It is what the city is famous for. Grist to the mill itself, their high consumption and demand is perhaps a tranquilizer against and escape from the madness that derives from the legacy of colonial bureaucracy.

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