For the sake of Greta

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Folklore is a strange thing. One day it can be the living memory of times past. The next it can be a collection of rituals underlining the assumption of cultural supremacy of one group or another. In Antwerp, under the rule of the newly elected Flemish-nationalist mayor, the public notion of folklore is shifting rapidly to the latter, with flag-waving and extensive World War I remembrance parties on the horizon. However, there are some events that withstand time and political influence. One of them is the election of the heaviest cow, the so-called “Fat Ox” event.

Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who once called Antwerp ‘the Pistol aimed at the heart of England’, started a competition to find the heaviest cow, sheep, and pig in the land. The meat of those heavyweights was then given to the poor, while the lard was used to grease the cannons. While that didn’t get Bonaparte far with the invasion of England, the tradition stuck with the locals, most likely because the weighing of the animals on the town square was a good excuse to stage a festival, and to get drunk. Others say that it was the Dutch king William that started it all, not Bonaparte. But nevertheless, it was a good excuse.

All we know is, somewhere early 19th Century a club called the Royal company of St John  was founded among the butchers and cattle-rearers, with the aim to help the poor (and to hold binge-drinking festivals). And so the tradition continued until today, though the exact details were modified several times during that time. Today, only cows can participate, and more specifically the Belgian Blue. (Though, at some point during the event, I’m sure I heard someone say “Flanders Blue”. There you go. Even cows can be nationalist).

So what is the set-up of the event? Well, yesterday morning it looked like this.

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The thing in the back is the weighing scale. At some point, as we shall see, the cows have to be convinced to walk into that wooden thing, and be weighed. But while waiting, they have to stand peacefully in their temporary numbered parking spots in the front.  The scale has to be tested first, another ritual that no doubt stems back many many years. So here you are: Five adult men posing as a single cow:

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Then, it was time for the cattle. One by one, the cows were led to their parking spot by the man in blue. Note that this is, apart from the daily horse carriages for tourists, the only time in the year when cattle is present on the Town Square (not counting last Election Day, when there were quite a lot of sheep).

Each cow has then to be motivated to move into the wooden construction. Some of the cows did not protest too much. This cow, for example, was quite happy to float a few centimeters above the earth:

Others were less happy. Cow number 4 had been a problem from the beginning, as she made a dashing entrance into the arena by escaping her owner, and nearly trampling the man with the microphone. Or how Antwerp became the Sevilla of the North for the duration of a few seconds. Leading Cow Number 4 into the scale was not that easy. They had to tie her to Cow Number 3, a more friendly specimen of merely 1,080 kilos, to lead her, as you can see here:

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Cow Number 4, after nearly destroying the wooden shed, was declared as 1,274 kilos. But would she win the contest and Eternal Glory? Weighing the final cow would decide the contest.  The tension in the air was tangible. Or it might just have been the smell of cow dung. Excitement rose as Cow Number 5, owned by last year’s winning owner, entered the shed and was declared… 1,272 kilos.

Consternation! Uproar! Did someone cheat with the weights? When were the scales last calibrated? Did Cow Number 4 drop dung into the weighing shed, thereby falsifying the measurement? Would this be just another case of Animal Fraud? Would she turn out to be a Horse in disguise?

Nothing of the sort. Cow Number 4 did drop dung into the shed, but the Principle of Conservation of Mass was invoked, thereby validating the measurement and avoiding a small catastrophe. The owner of Cow Number 5 had to bow to Newton and the laws of Bovine Dynamics, and was later spotted in a local bar with a 2 kilo hangover.

Then came the Winner Ceremony.  No Chariots of Fire here, but nevertheless with a golden medal for the lucky owner. One disappointing detail: each year, the mayor of Antwerp has to be present to baptise the winning cow with a name of his choosing. This year, the newly elected mayor did not turn up, but sent his deputy. No doubt to avoid association jokes about the irony of fat cows in front of the town hall and his recent diet that made him lose 60 kilos in a few months, got him on the covers of nearly every magazine, and made him win the elections.

Cow Number 4, while probably hoping for the title Destroyer of All, ended up with the name Greta. Here seen in front of what once was marked as Parking Spot 4. Notice the absence of the panel with the number ‘4’ (wrecked) and the absence of the barrier between her and Cow Number 3 on the right. (That barrier, with one well-aimed kick of the horns, had ended up earlier at the place where I was standing to take this picture.)

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Folklore, it seemed, was still armed and dangerous.

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The Difficult Winter of Clark Kent

Dear Belgian Railways,

As you might have noticed by now, Belgium has recently been covered in a soft blanket of cold, white, powdery stuff. It is called snow. Remember that as i move on.

As you also might have noticed, this -all together now- snow has caused a bit of  a problem throughout the land as it tends to form dense carpets on roads, gardens and houses. What’s more, it can create accidents. Deadly accidents. So, although people tend to be rather happy with it at first, making large white antropmorphic figures outside in the garden, they quickly get fed up with the whole thing and start praying for sun to melt the snow away.

What’s more, as they can’t move about with their cars and bicycles without bumping into large solid objects, they turn to modes of transport more suited for such occasions. And that’s where you fit in.

You see, people have confidence in railways. If all else fails, people tend to look at the institution that lives by the clock, runs large engines and marvels of engineering over large distances to transport people from their homes to work and back for confidence. It’s the well-oiled machine of civilization at work. It is said that you can measure the wellfare of a country by the punctuality of its’ trains, in which case we are all doomed. At least Belgium, that is.

Whereas the French railways, at the first sight of snowflakes, are a kind of Spiderman, helping old ladies safely across the road, Belgian railways are not much unlike Superman: good-looking and strong at first sight, but not really at home on this planet and wearing the dirty underwear on the outside. You can call it what you want, but let’s call it by name: incompetence.

I happened to be in the country for a few hours during this memorable episode, and for a few moments i thought you had learned from last year. But as my train broke down just outside of Brussels and people started to panic because the doors were locked and it was impossible to get out, the first hints of Clark Kent’s outdated superhero costume underneath his clean-shaven journalist exterior were starting to show.

First, with tongue-in-cheek phrases barking from the loudspeakers, more at home in an abbatoir or, let’s face it, a gulag,  we were hurdled inside an already overpopulated and terribly slow  commuter train towards Brussels, with the promise we would be ‘taken care of’ in Brussels’ main station to go on to Paris.

In Brussels, however, no one was waiting for us. Well… in fact that’s a bit of an understatement, really. A few thousand people were waiting for their Thalys train to Paris, but there’s wasn’t a single member of railway staff in sight to ‘take care of’ the people coming from Cologne. In fact, there wasn’t a single member of railway staff in sight at all. The last member of staff i happened to notice was running towards his cubicle to lock himself in, protected from those nasty travelling people by a brick wall and the heated interior of his office on the platform. Oh, did i forget to mention? It was freezing -5°C outside.

I encountered a similar problem last year in Paris, when 4000 people were waiting in Austerlitz station in the freezing cold 3 days before Christmas for their train to arrive and take them to their family. They were given personalized information by railway personnel, coffee, macarons, croissants and warm blankets.

In Brussels South i saw elderly people being violoently pushed aside and barked at by railway staff, something you would probably call ‘communication’, but which i call violence and..well..incompetence.

Incompetence to handle a situation which, of course, was difficult… which, of course, was chaotic. But it wasn’t unexpected. You could have seen it coming. It’s called ‘winter’ for a start, and you had already noticed last year what it was capable of doing.

If even Superman can’t face a meteorological phenomenon like that, we’re all very surely doomed.

Yours sincerely,

Geert Biermans