After flying more than 11 hours from Singapore to Helsinki and more than 2 hours onwards, I set my foot in Brussels airport, with many planes marked Brussels Air, awaiting departures. I wonder why is it called Brussels Air because it is more common for national carriers to carry the country’s name (Malaysia, Japan etc) or the region’s name (Scandinavian, Iberia etc), but in this case it was the name of a city. In this journey, I took Finnair as it was the cheapest national carrier flying from Singapore to the destination. It was a good choice since Helsinki has a small airport and immigration clearance was swift. The agenda was to attend a specialized conference on Hydrogen Safety (ICHS2013).
The conference was very informative and technically deep. We were informed on the current trends in related works and future directions. One of the noted invited speaker on the plenary sessions emphasized on misinformation about hydrogen energy. One of the thing that he said was the fact that many people believed that hydrogen is an energy for the future. This is wrong !, said he. It is the energy for now, and the very near future. The technology is ready. Major players in automotive industry already have all what they needed to launch their product into the market in 2015, with the introduction of appropriate infrastructure facilities beginning now and onwards. Wow! Maybe many still do not believe the statement, but I think, it is either correct or very close to being correct. We will soon see Fuel Cell cars powered by hydrogen in the market.
Then there was an interesting talk by somebody from the European Parliament. He was talking about climate change. A point that caught my attention, an in a way convinced me, was that there is a way forward. In the past, the EU was encouraging biofuels but later, they were against it because growing crops for fuel was in direct conflict with food security initiatives. The fertile lands are more needed for growing food. Then he said, Lets clean the forest and convert the biomass collected into hydrogen through gasification and pyrolysis, then use the hydrogen in fuel cell vehicle. In this manner, we make the forest clean and at the same time eliminating emission. What a solution ! Then he said, “together we can make this change, can we?”. That 10 minutes of speech was made me smile, and I told Wijay who was sitting next to me, “I’m going to tell TATA about this, we’ll develop pyrolysis process to the best that we could.”
Brussels is a bilingual city – French and Flemish – both of which are foreign to me. On our first day, we were on a metro train and were supposed to stop at station “Arts-Loi”, but when the train stopped at the anticipated station, I saw “Kunst-Wet” on the digital display, and I thought, I’d somehow missed “Arts-Loi”, only to realize few seconds later, after the train started moving that both were actually the same station. Haha…we made the mistake once and quickly learnt to appreciate the nature of bilingual city. The same confusion happened when reading maps. Sometimes, in one end of the road, it was in Flemish (e.g. Nieuwstraat) and at the other end of the same road, the name was written in French (e.g. Rue Neuve). Both languages are used in signages, maps etc and can easily cause confusion if visitors are not careful.
Any city has its own culture, evolved over years of civilizations. Perhaps, it is good that I mention two interesting thing. First is the level of trust given to the public. This was noted in the city transportation system. We could travel over the variety of city transports – metro, tram, bus – using a single price ticket that can be purchased from a counter at the station. A season pass, or multi-trips ticket were also available. I bought tickets for 5 rides, costing 7 euro +. As we approached the entrance, there’s a machine where the ticket was to be inserted so that the balance of useable trips were printed. Sometimes, there was a queue especially in peak hours. If somebody decided not to get his journey recorded, he can simply walk through and go with free ride since once you enter the station, you can travel anywhere the network, and you are free to leave any station without going through any kind of security of ticket inspection. So, honesty is expected.
Another interesting observation is the working and business hours. Shops were generally closed at 7 pm. Supermarkets closed at 8 pm. During a dinner with a professor from Lueven University, he mentioned that all shops must be closed for at least a day to protect the livelihood of the shop owners. Mmm… interesting.
The Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven (KU Leuven) or simply called University of Lueven, has a long history. Founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, KU Leuven now has over 40,000 students enrolled in variety of programs. Our particular interest was on the M.Sc. in Safety Engineering that has been run over 30 years. During the dinner meeting that we had, the course coordinator explained the history, philosophy and operational issues concerning the program. To Prof Jan Degreve, millions of thanks for hosting us, without even having clear idea who we were, as the meeting was arranged based on email communication, and we had never met before. Thanks for the hospitality.
One interesting tradition of the university is to have annual theater where students mimics certain professors in creative play. It has been an annual event that were celebrated every year by both students and faculties. Yes, it would be very interesting if we try something like that here in UTM and I wonder whether I would be one of the character in the play.
Muslims in Brussels
Brussels has a large Muslim community. It is close to a million or so I was told. As such, halal foods were easy to reach. Nevertheless, the “rice eaters” of Malaysia might have to sacrifice their normal habit and start to get used to having variety of breads. It was really delicious and I enjoyed the food immensely.
The Islamic center of Brussels was funded by the Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia and was located at the main mosque. The purposely built mosque stood in the Euro quarters, a walking distance from the main Euro administration buildings such as the Berlaymont and Charlemagne. So, it was a short walk from the Schuman metro station. It had a large prayer hall and variety of facilities such as library, meeting rooms etc. For Malay speaking, there was an Indonesian called Abdullah to facilitate.
Walking along the streets from the city center, we saw many restaurants and shops owned and/or operated by Muslims with Morocan or Turkish origin. Mosques were also available in between rows of shops. Unfortunate for us, we had to struggle with our very limited command of Arabic to communicate with them as they didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak French.
Interestingly, since Islam is recognized as one of the religion by the government, the Imams and Islamic religious teachers are on government payrolls.
Interesting Place Brussels
I am not sure what was the most interesting tourist attraction in Brussels. The shopping district along Rue de Neuve offers variety of goods. Many people bought Belgium chocolate, which was delicious. Atomium has a nice exhibition, and is a walking distant from a metro station.
So many people posed with the Manneken-Pis (a statue of a boy urinating). Not far from there was Grand Place – a beautiful sight with beautiful buildings – a must visit for those who love arts and architecture. It is a beautiful city with a good network of public transport. So, if time is available, the whole city can be explored conveniently.
The Search for Rice
Wijay is a true “rice eater”. After two days without rice, some compartment in his stomach felt lonely, I guess. So rice was needed. So, in the evening after the conference, we went to the Muslim areas in search for rice. We walked from one restaurant after another, only to realize that rice was not an option. Finally we settled for meat and potato. The next day, after obtaining information from the Abdullah, an Indonesian who works at the Islamic Centre, we went to Le Nil. It was an Egyptian restaurant in the city, fully energized anticipating a good rice dinner. I ordered bread-based dinner as it was more appealing to me, by the looks displayed in the menu. When our foods were delivered, I clearly saw the frustration from my friend’s expression. Well it was a sticky buttered rice, not the ordinary “Arab rice” that we enjoyed in the Arab restaurant in Malaysia. So, finally, he survived 5 days without proper rice serving. Quite and impressive achievements, haha…