Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Protest over Ikea meatballs - welcome back to Absurdistan

I’m back in Brussels after spending the Christmas break home in the US. It was yet another trip where I spent most of the time regaling people with the insane stories of the strange place I now find myself living in. I’m pretty sure most of my American friends think I’m making this stuff up. I only wish.

After describing the impromptu general strike three days before Christmas which forced me to pay $500 to rebook my flight home, I moved on to describing to my friends the other union strikes I have witnessed since moving here. From the impromptu metro driver strike that was called after a driver claimed he was punched by a passenger (it turned out the driver had punched the passenger) to the October garbage strike in which the garbagemen went around town lighting the trash bags on fire and throwing them into the street, there’s plenty to describe. And let's not forget the time the taxi drivers blockaded Brussels Airport because an unlicensed taxi driver had been grazed by a bullet while he fled from police during a high-speed chase.

Today I learned about a whole new anecdote of insanity I could have described to my perplexed American friends. According to this story by Belgian news station RTL, the restaurant owners association in Belgium (Horeca) is busing homeless people to Ikea as a protest against their low meatball prices. When I first saw this story I assumed it had to be a joke. Clearly I’ve been in the US too long! Because I forgot that when you hear about something this absurd happening in Belgium, it’s probably true.

In a protest against Ikea’s low-priced meatballs, which they say are putting traditional restaurants out of business, Horeca bused 200 homeless people to a branch of Ikea for a Christmas dinner. It was an apparent effort to disrupt the chain’s business by scaring away customers. Horeca’s president accused the Swedish chain of selling meatballs at loss-leading prices in order to get people into the store, something that is illegal in Belgium. He told RTL, “After seeing meatballs at €2.50 in Ikea, consumers will treat us traditional restaurants like thieves."

The Christmas dinner wasn’t just a one-off. Horeca’s president said they will continue busing the homeless people to Ikea and buying them meatballs until Ikea raises its food prices to what they deem an acceptable level. Apparently, Horeca is banking on the fact that consumers will find the sight and smell of homeless people so objectionable that they won’t go to Ikea any more for their meatballs. The whole thing would be quite funny, if it weren't so symptomatic of the absurdity in this country.

So to anyone who didn’t understand why I was buying so many things to take back with me while home in the US, now you get a clearer picture! Consumer goods are much more expensive here in the 'land that capitalism forgot', because prices are so rigidly controlled (either by the government, by unions or by business cartels). We’re now in the January sales period, one of just two months per year when retailers are allowed to have sales (the other is July). But really, this sale period just reduces prices to what they would be in neighboring countries like the UK and Germany. So they’re of little interest to me, since I have a policy of never buying anything in Belgium that isn’t absolutely necessary. I save up my shopping for when I’m out of the country.

I made a new years resolution to try to be more positive about Belgium. Clearly, I'm off to a great start already. Oh well, my resolution to lose 10 kilos was probably much more realistic. Happy new year!


Anonymous said...

At least people here are not dying in front of hospitals because they do not have the right kind of insurance.

Anonymous said...

Nor does Belgium illegally invade middle eastern countries causing untold suffering and so many deaths in the name of 'democracy' (we want full spectrum dominance!)


Anonymous said...

I guess the Belgians got that out of their system when they illegally invaded the Congo and killed 10 million people there a century ago.

Anonymous said...

Right. Will not happen again, like indeed happened recently in the Middle East, much less than a century ago.

BTW, life in an average Belgian city (and even Brussels) seems much more affordable than in NY.

Anonymous said...

In the US capitalism has, to a large extent, overridden local variety in culture and cuisine.

another anaymous (not related to the previous ones° said...

you forget sometimes the confusion here makes for funny bed fellows. Consider the recent story of these Belgian-Congolese protesters parading with Flemish flags and threatening to vote NVA if french speaking politicians were not to condemn more vigorously the alleged electoral fraud in Congo. Seriously, in what other EU countries do you see immigrants of African decent threatening a left leaning political class of voting for the local nationalist party?

Anonymous said...

"Only in Belgium", as they say!

Anonymous said...

I think that's pretty hypocritical, the Belgians complaining about anyone else's war-mongering. Easily the least-likeable people I have met in all my time.

Anonymous said...

Affordable healthcare, cheap rents, quite a rich job market for expats and flights and rail connections to major european , quite a horrible place indeed. I suggest keeping on bitching and select individual events out of their context to ridicule the poor bastards and deem them underdeveloped. Clearly America and its tea party, gun ownership and jesus freaks is a much more civilised place. The meatball thing is funny but it does not "embody everything that's wrong with this country" I don't think. If you're homesick, skype your friends from back home, don't vent stereotypes on the internet, not cool.