Brussels stories: Sunshine strikers

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The Independent Online

For many Britons, "union militancy" recalls flying pickets, mass rallies at Longbridge and bodies left unburied in the Winter of Discontent. In Brussels things are very different. The Belgian capital has just suffered its second general strike in a month - and very much enjoyed it.

Banner-waving union demonstrations often block the Schuman roundabout in the heart of the EU district. But the pragmatic Belgians make these disruptive events as tolerable as possible by concentrating demos in the agreeable summer months, enabling the protesters, after half an hour of chanting and whistle-blowing, to move off to cafés and bars.

Strikes invariably take place on Mondays or Fridays, allowing the capital's population to indulge in one of its favourite activities.

To faire le pont (literally, make a bridge) is to extend a weekend by taking off an intervening day, even if it is a normal working day. The inhabitants of Brussels frequently do this without official excuse. For example, as last Tuesday was All Saints' Day and a public holiday it made Monday a prime target to faire le pont all the way through to Wednesday. The previous Friday's strike was an additional godsend to craftier residents of the capital who, claiming they would be unable to get into work, extended the weekend into a five-day break.

Even for those not lucky enough to get away for this length of time, the strike had compensations. As the city emptied, traffic was light, parking uncharacteristically easy and tables available at the most popular restaurants. It all helps to explain why trade unions have a better image in Brussels than they do in London. The tactic behind industrial action is to present the employer with as many difficulties as possible while causing minimum pain to people in the street.

Free to threes

Eighth birthday parties are important events, requiring meticulous planning. Fortunately, Harry Potter's latest adventures are about to arrive in Brussels, and one local cinema provides the perfect solution. The birthday package provides the film and - this being Belgium - a very edible chocolate cake for post-viewing festivities. One potential problem surrounded the certification for the film. In Britain, it comes under a PG12A certificate; in the US it is a PG13, with parents cautioned that some material is inappropriate for pre-teens. In Belgium, things are more relaxed: the cinema manager is happy to admit groups of birthday revellers, provided that all are over the age of three.

Flemish faithful

Britain's Royal Family has a loyal following in Belgium and their doings feature regularly on the big Sunday night show Royalty on the Flemish VTM channel. This round-up of royal events from across Europe has a new guest pundit in Alice Castle (yes, a close relation). Let those who dismiss it as being of minority interest beware: its audience sometimes exceeds that for footie.