The remit was simple. We had to catch a bus at 23:00 to London and from there meet a connection the next morning at 09:00 to Brussels. Our intentions were to make it to a weekend of direct action as part of a collective entitled ‘TTIP: Game over’. Our inspirational friend Iva had alerted us to some goings on in demonstration of the trade deals that were being proposed between the EU, USA and Canada that flew in the face of the rights and needs of the citizens of all three behemoths. Having worked rigorously driving buses for seven months and finishing up two days prior to this, the timing seemed fortuitous and perfectly crafted for some adventure. Whatever happened, we hoped to have some fun and cause some mischief along the way.
Our timings from the beginning were tight. Finally after a day’s worth of procrastination from bag packing, we stepped outside our block to stand on the ever so slightly damp grass of the Meadows at 22:36, shouldered by a few of the many, many friends we had made that summer living in the Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative. Martin had rolled a joint and Diana had brewed some mulled wine and we passed them around as we blethered the final few minutes away. Such moments were commonplace but no less enjoyable because of their frequency.
We were really pushing it for time though and the taxi we ordered was not letting itself be known. At that moment, another pal, Dimple, came walking up the road, just back from Glasgow. There was something poetic about her arrival as it had been Dimple who had offered me her room for the summer whilst she headed home to India and thus had opened up this amazing world of community living, engagement and friendship that had underpinned the year and would serve as the catalyst for the next couple of weeks. She had been the first to let me in, now she would be the last to see me out. We made our hugs and hoisted our bags on our backs as finally the taxi came around the corner. After a couple of friendly exchanges, the driver picked up on our need for speed and put his foot down. Miraculously, he got us down to St Andrew Square bus station with ten minutes to spare which allowed ample time to spark up another smoke outside for the long road ahead.
Out of principle, I haven’t ridden the night bus to London for a few years. The principle being it’s a shite way to travel. But the discomfort of this was not so bad. The trick is to find two seats to yourself and sprawl out in as unappealing a manner as possible. Who would want to sit next to some lairy chump with coconut water spilling fae their gullet? The method served us both well and we got as solid a sleep as could be hoped for before arriving into London bleary eyed but in good time for our connecting bus. We stepped off and had twenty minutes to take in the world’s capital as people spilled out around us and began breathing congested life into the day. This allowed us the perfect amount of time to grab a coffee, some breakfast and a couple of tokes from the charred remains of last night’s funky cigarette.
The ride out of the UK went smooth and our possessions unchecked. Days later we would be left to rue the false sense of security that this would lull us into. When we arrived into Brussels we weren’t too sure what was to be done or even where we had to go. We had struck up a conversation with a girl from London on the way down. She began to open up about the various kinds of activism she herself had done in the past including working with environmental groups to shut down runways at Heathrow but she spoke like that wasn’t something that compelled her anymore. It appeared she had become jaded by aspects of it and was now looking to other ways to live a life by similar principles. She was waiting for a friend who was using the methods of permaculture to build a place in the country an hour outside of town. As we arrived into Brussels in the late afternoon, I let her use my phone to contact him but once she got through, she discovered that her pal had got the date wrong and thought she was arriving tomorrow. She was stranded and would have to find a way to his from here. After working out where she could grab a train, we bade farewell and begun to make our way to the campaign headquarters for this weekend that we still had little knowledge of and where there were people with even less of an awareness of our arrival.
As we stumbled for a couple of kilometres through the streets of this new city, the phone eventually announced we had arrived where we needed to be yet nothing discernible could confirm this. It was only as Liam caught sight of two people in Ali Baba pantaloons that we thought we had a lead. Scuttling down the alley they had gone down, we found ourselves at the entrance of Zinneke, a squat that once we entered opened a myriad of corridors and steps to different areas of activism and intrigue. Swept up in this rush of movements, we still had little idea what to do. In those moments when you’re in a new place and unsure where to go, we swiftly found the best approach was to roll up a wee cigarette and stand outside, displaying a modicum of purpose if only within one concentrated flick of the wrist.
From there, conversation did begin to be sparked with others. We met a man called Serge, grizzled in features with a beard and long flowing hair both masking and enhancing the deep set contours on his face.
‘Do you have suits or anything to dress up in?’ he asked with a gravelly tone.
‘No, afraid not.’ we sheepishly replied.
‘Not a problem, but you’ll come with us anyway? We’re going to Place de Luxembourg, the square by the European Parliament to make big party tonight. But you must be there ON time, oui?’
He talked almost codedly but at least we were gaining some insight into what was going on. At that, he moved on and within seconds we were joined by a sharp suited Frenchman who looked like he could have pulled off deals in any boardroom across the land. He asked for a light and begun to coax out a little more of the evening’s plans to us. It all still remained a mystery though.
Eventually, we were navigated back upstairs where we were asked on our proficiency of various languages in various languages. It swiftly became clear to these organisers that they were lumped with two British mono linguists who weren’t immediately going to add much to the dynamic of the weekend. Like being ushered to the kids table at a dinner party, we were matched up with some other Brits and told to start making our way to the square VERY punctually for 19:00. We got chatting straight away, they were a group of six, four girls and two guys. I’m not sure if it was the shared language, culture or openness of the weekend but whatever it was, there appeared to be an instant affinity between all of us as we speculated on what was to come from our time here. They had arrived about one hour earlier than us in a protest van that had left from London that had we known about could have gifted us a lift through.
No issue though, we were here now and were now all convalescing with a ragtag bunch of fellow Europeans from all around the continent as we made ourselves to the square.
‘Wait, wait, everyone must get ticket,’ one of the people we now deemed in charge stopped us and said.
Within moments another of the group held up a fistful of paper and caught our speaker’s eye.
’Ah! Felix here has bought everyone tickets, say thank you to Felix!’
With the cries of merci, grazie and cheers ringing around us, we boarded and from there through buses, trams and optimistic footsteps we got closer to our destination. As I was chatting with Rowan, one of the English girls, it took only about three and a half minutes of conversation to discover that of course we had friends in common. The only person she knew in Edinburgh was her oldest pal who just so happened to be a kindly stranger that let us stay with them for a while when the two of us were bouncing around flats for a couple of months. It later transpired that one of the two folk I kent from Manchester was a friend of hers too. Coincidences of the modern world, eh? We all swaggered down, and began to hear more and more of the plan. We discovered that so many of us were in suits because this square was where the lobbyists of every group, corporate interest and persuasion head down to on a Thursday evening for drinks and networking at the end of their week’s work. We were to integrate and do likewise. The remit was to drink and drink like we’d earnt it. What a way to do activism.
After a while, the plan would be to strike up song as one. A piece from Les Miserables was chosen and the words would be distributed to us. Until that point, we talked with others in the crowded bars, chin chinning our glasses of mulled wine with any smiling stranger we met. This fraternising was fun in of itself but every interaction was laced with a certain weaselling as I tried to decipher who was a lobbyist and who was like us. As I stepped back inside for the bathroom, our fine threaded French pal caught my eye with a subtle wink as he drank champagne and mingled with other suited fellows. We made friends fast even as the night moved on at a gentle pace. Then the clock struck 19:30 and suddenly the words began to rise. As the ripple of song moved through us, I found myself trying to catch the tune. ‘Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?’ The first part reverberated in my head like a football song, ‘Do you hear the Hibees sing? Noho, noho.’
It turned out there was a bit more of a melody to the piece and we begun to sing with more gusto and earnestness as we caught hold of the tune. Soon almost everyone around us were singing in unison – ‘It is the music of the people,’ – their voices were bolstered by the numbers around them. From there other members of the public started to sing and we were handing out sheets with the lyrics written down to more and more passers by. By this point an air of defiance had taken hold of the square as flares were lit and the historic statues of Brussels’ thinkers and creators were seized, draped in the feelings of the thinkers today, hoping to create their own vision for the future, – ‘When the beating of your heart,’ – one that rejected the backroom deals engendered by the lobbyists in our midst. As we moved around in jubilation we continued to recognise faces in the crowd. –‘Echoes the beating of the drums.’ – Barely in the city for two hours we had a plethora of people to rely upon and relate to and the unity of that was a sight to behold. All of a sudden I was caked in glitter and dancing with every contorting body that flashed past mine.
And every person I met shared with them a different story, came from a different place and relayed a different perspective. But we were all brought together by something shared. A common humanity perhaps, a want to integrate people in the face of unaccountable profiteering and self interest.
‘Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!’
As we moved more free and spilled out onto the grass in the middle of the square, a procession of people paraded through with a sound system and enveloped the square with greater noise. In the midst of all of this a local collective begun to distribute food to one and to all. Energised by everything around me, I begun to weave through crowds, striking up interactions with people at a frenetic pace. I met environmentalists from France, Italian-Germans working in Belgium, drifters from Portugal, students from the Czech Republic and it was clear that we had all descended on this square tonight united by a common goal, namely that we wanted to speak out against the insidious, secretive scheming done in the name of all European citizens and prove that this concept of European unity stood for much more than a state of bureaucratic convenience. I was struck by that instantly. I felt an intellectual, cultural attachment with almost everyone that I met. Each interaction was steeped in excited learning as I heard about people’s backgrounds and where they were from. There was so much to discover about each person and everyone was so open in their interactions with people, eager to share and eager to listen. These are the exciting elements of a globalised world.
The chance to be immersed and then enlightened by so many cultures. It had taken just a couple of hours planning, two buses and here we were entrenched amidst invigorated humans from across an entire continent. I defy anyone to name another period of history when such unified actions could ever have been possible.
We got carried away with our evening that rather than take the option of a free bed in a hostel and get some rest for the next day, we instead left the square and continued on the process of changing the world through wine, beer and cigarettes. With two new friends from the city we descended down steep embankments that bellied the reputation the country had as flat landed. With two bikes between four, it was the locals and proprietors of the bikes who took the lead and pedalled us. I straddled the back of my bike whilst Liam was wrapped up and cradled on the front of his like ET soaring past the moon. We pelted down, edging past each other, slaloming between lines of bemused police out on patrol. We stopped eventually in a new square, Brussels seems to be made up of many spaces of this ilk, like puddles filling cracks throughout the city. We nestled off a side street and into a pub lit dimly but bustling with people in every crevice. We took a seat around a wooden table and begun to talk on the world, on all manners of subjects, from TTIP to politics, from art to love and all of the intricacies in between. To my left there were two folk engaged in a vitriolic game of chess and to my right a group of men were taking turns passing around an ink quill and paper, etching out a sketch that reflected the collective will of their creative, drunken minds. Liam caught the eye of a rotund Belgian man who could not break his gaze upon my blonde bequeathed friend.
‘You are the most beautiful creation I have ever seen,’ he extolled, ‘the pen in my hand could not craft such beauty, I must have you.’
Liam played along up to a point, ‘Oh, ok, come here then,’ he quipped, as he jovially hugged the man then leaned away.
‘No, I must have you,’ the prowling portly panther persistently purred. Grabbing his hand, he puckered it down with a kiss and professed his undying love for Liam. As the rejections became more forceful so did the moves.
‘Come away with me.’
’No, you are not his type, I’m afraid he is straight,’ one of the girls interjected.
’Fuck you, bitch.’
Collectively, harmoniously we united and told him to get tae fuck and back off. The unease of the encounter lingered momentarily but felt quite novel. This seedy prowling might well come as no surprise to incalculable numbers of women who have to tolerate this all the time but #everydaysexism only really exists if it’s documented by two straight men apparently.
We stumbled out of there and into another couple of dive bars, the kind you’ll only find wandering around at 4am. We made it inside for a dance but as we opened the door, were greeted by a room full of drunk, sleeping Belgian men, propping up all corners of the bar. What compelled Liam to insist on the live version of Runrig’s Loch Lomond to rally them all up I don’t know but we tried, it failed and the heavy handed paw of Scottish cringe tugged on our shoulders as the bar staff ceased playing it about 30 seconds in to the dreary start. We did manage to blare out Fela Kuti as a sweetener, if only for ourselves.
As we bundled out of the bar, we got into a bizarre tit for tat with some of the sleepers who had woken up and wanted to insist that feminism doesn’t work because men are better at football. We got them telt as best we could and from there travailed around the quiet streets of our newly discovered neighbourhood before we made it back to some apartment for a cup of tea and amaretto, a place to stay and a place to unwind. As the sun was threatening to break out at around 7am, we decided to call it a night and crashed in the kitchen of our new pals from Belgium. The weekend was still in its infancy but already we were beginning to feel liberated by the joining in of a fight we felt compelled to learn more from.