Brussels Stories: Playground craze gives Eurocrats' offspring lessons in diplomacy

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The Independent Online

The scene is a crowded Brussels toy shop where a fractious Englishman is rowing simultaneously with two shop assistants and two disappointed children.

The scene is a crowded Brussels toy shop where a fractious Englishman is rowing simultaneously with two shop assistants and two disappointed children.

Every parent knows about playground fads and the nightmare of having to track down that elusive, must-have toy. But for those with children at the European School in Brussels there is an added problem. The pupils here are sons and daughters of officials in the European institutions, diplomats from the 25 member states, plus a few hangers-on like us. Most European nationalities are represented, and that means that a playground craze can sweep in with horrifying speed from any corner of the continent. Parents are then dispatched on a thankless quest for an item which is likely to be unobtainable.

The current craze is for the Tamagotchi, the virtual-reality pets popular in the UK in the 1990s. How this happened is anyone's guess. Maybe a container-load turned up in the Baltic states, and several made their way, via Vilnius, in a diplomatic bag, to the Belgian capital.

The consequences have been felt in many homes. The internet is virtually useless as a search tool because, despite reports of a revival in the UK, sites devoted to this product tend to say "last updated in 1998". Meanwhile, Belgian shopkeepers are trying to pass off similar products as the real thing. My nine-year-old is not going to be fooled by an old trick like that.

Last year things were easier because the craze was for Diddl (which seems to have originated in nearby Germany). Diddl is a type of stationery - usually pink - adorned with pictures of cartoon-mice characters in various poses, some rarer and more highly prized than others. Fortunately, it is stocked at select Belgian stores, though its fame does not yet really seem to have spread to the UK. Visiting English children have been presented with a prized piece of Diddl stationery, and looked extremely perplexed.

But for several months last year it was the only thing that brought together the nations at the European School. Fervently anglo-phone children even deigned to speak French in order to swap Diddls with the francophone counterparts they normally ignore. It treated us to the marvellous sight of the offspring of Eurocrats engaging in a complex ritual involving the exchange of pieces of paper. Just like their parents.

None of the above should be read as a criticism of Brussels, Belgium or its shopkeepers (even if they cannot satisfy the desires of my children). I stress the point only because the last "Brussels Stories" about shop opening hours caused a ripple of discontent over here. One of the Flemish papers, De Morgen, reported back to its readers how their country was being slagged off by one of the many ungrateful foreigners who come to Brussels, drive up prices and take up all the parking spaces. Thanks to a German colleague who saw the article and a Belgian friend who told me what it said, I have read my words, quoted in Flemish and then translated back into English.

De Morgen then goes on to say that "the Brit [that's me] has regretted for years that shops are closed on Sundays and complains about the Soviet Union-like queues in banks, bakeries and supermarkets". Yours truly is presented as someone who really has nothing better to do than to go to the supermarket on a Sunday.

Fair comment, really. If we didn't like it in Brussels we wouldn't be here. I have fared much better than a former colleague who, after highlighting the prevalence of dog excrement on the streets of Brussels, agreed to appear on a late-night Flemish TV show. With a somewhat shaky grasp of the language, he emerged unsure what they said about him but with the impression that he might have been compared to the stuff on the pavements he had written about.

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