I’m planning ahead. I’m thinking of all the things I will yet again not get done on Monday. At least this time, our local expat and military communities were on the ball and shared the news with those of us who don’t stay on top of our local news (I do try…most of the time). Now this is not just a Belgian part of life, it is through-and-through a European part of life. Some countries strike more than others, but I see it again and again wherever I am living in Europe. No big deal you say? Ha! The strike scheduled for Monday promises to be the most all-encompassing and biggest strike in the last 17 years in Belgium. Here’s what you need to know about strikes that continuously rear their ugly heads and have a knack for popping up just when you are about to take a train or plane to your favorite destination or even put out your overflowing garbage. Follow my lead, and you won’t get stranded…literally!
Let’s talk about this next Belgian strike. Most strikes like to hit us where it hurts right away – public transportation. Most Europeans, especially city dwellers, get to work via public transportation. The kids go to school this way…there are no yellow school buses to be found on the economy. Even the little old ladies who drag their little shopping carts behind them can’t get to the grocery store of their choice, as we all know that Europeans grocery shop more frequently, some even every day, in order to keep their smallish refrigerators well-stocked. There immediately go all the working and shopping opportunities for that day. Always have a Plan B for getting from Point A to Point B….even if it is some half-cooked idea. At least have something alternative.
Airlines get miffed too, as their passengers can’t get to the airports or fly the shorter routes. They have to then spend extra money to try and hire buses, which now come at a premium….IF they can get them or have planned for it. But along with that, the baggage handlers and airport workers get wind of the strike and refuse to work as well. Hand-in-hand, it seems more and more industries and labor unions join together to make the strike bigger. I’ve had friends whose vacations have been ruined, as they only had so many days of leave, plan a wonderful weeklong vacation in the sun and then can’t get to said resort because their flight was cancelled due to the airport not being able to function. Good luck trying to get your money back! In fact, I had to fight myself one year to get my money back from a package vacation deal flying out of Germany to Italy. The night before I left, the airport down in Italy decided to strike (unbeknownst to me). I found out about it along with the other passengers, as we sat at the gate and watched the time for boarding come and go. After finally a brief announcement saying the flight was cancelled due to an airport strike, I was glad I had my phone with plenty of pre-paid minutes to try to make other arrangements with the travel agency. The airline did not plan for buses (too far) and just cancelled flights across the board. Yeah, great if you can go another day. We only had a week on this high-volume vacation week where every other European was taking off (I think it was around Easter). It was too late to book a similar vacation at the same price, and we ended up making it a ski week instead in slushy snow….whupdeedoo and very depressing for me! Be sure when booking package deals to read the fine print on your rights (the Costa cruise passengers recently found out what little rights they had)! Go with a reputable travel agency AND buy travel insurance that protects against such stuff (and read that fine print too). Also have an alternate vacation plan or even another way to get there should this deal fall through. The ONLY reason I got my money back for the entire package was because everything was tied into one deal. And it was NOT automatic…I had to fight four long months to get my money back…fighting alternately with the booking agency, the tour agency and my credit card company…and amazingly enough NOT the airline. The airline was ready to give me my money back immediately (or rebook), but I held out for all of it! Oh, and I had to do most of the fighting in German.
You can bet nowadays, if I have a flight or train going out of town, I will be checking the night before and the morning of to see if there are any delays! Check the airline’s website (or train’s) as well as the airport’s site. Sometimes one can strike without the other. If you are a Twitter user, sign up for the appropriate newsfeed. In the winter of 2010, as I watched the snow pile up in Belgium (a very unusual heavy snowfall year), I first got into Twitter and realized how valuable it was. I followed the Twitter feeds of @BrusselsAirport and @eurocontrol (snow slowing down flights in Munich as I write this) and got up-to-the-minute updates and photos of what was going on at the airport in Brussels and all over Europe. They even tweeted pics of the terminals, runways and other important tidbits that eased my worry and helped my family get to the airport at just the right time to catch our flight….the only day flights went out between two massive dumpings of snow was miraculously that day. We would not have been able to travel back to the US on our FREE COT leave had we not gone that day. Think about other things that touch you in your daily life and what Twitter feeds may help you keep on top of things rather than you reacting to everything that happens around you. Facebook can be helpful in this way. Many overseas military communities have Facebook pages and especially if you have a smartphone, you can get quick information on road delays, car accidents and other hazards you may need to know quickly. I’ll be blogging about these helpful community pages shortly (stay tuned). I once decided to stay put at home when I saw on a local Facebook page that there was a car pile up at the front gate and no one could get in or out of that intersection. I saved valuable time and needless effort that day.
So far I have only really mentioned travel stuff. What about the daily bureaucracy and even day-to-day life? You’ve probably seen photos of the massive pile-ups of garbage in Naples, Italy. Italian garbage collectors like to strike often. A friend who used to live there lamented it often. I think our garbage workers have been talking to the Italian garbage workers, as our garbage was supposed to be picked up on Wednesday and is still sitting out there. Granted, at the first of the year, they changed our schedule all around but since they missed many communities and streets when drumming up the new schedule (how could such a screw up happen?), they are backlogged and still trying to figure out how to pick up everyone’s garbage. But guess what? Since they haven’t come yet, I know they won’t come on Sunday, and they definitely won’t come on Monday due to the strike. Now they will be even more backed up. Have a back up plan for your garbage, and maybe now is the time to try to figure out how to make less garbage (meet this special family who put one year’s worth of garbage in a canning jar). See if you can take your garbage on post. Find out where your local dump and recycling center is and bring your stuff there as soon as it opens up again. Unfortunately, since our garbage has to be put in specially marked bags that we must purchase, the dump doesn’t accept those. Guess for now I will leave it on the sidewalk (no trashcans allowed), sprinkle it liberally with pepper (to keep the animals out) and hope they come….and soon.
I also like to keep a liberal stock of essentials such as canned goods and long-life milk (I know, it tastes yucky, but you can’t taste the difference when you cook and bake with it). I can’t tell you the number of times I have gone in a store where their fresh products, especially fresh milk, were lacking. Oh, the truckers are on strike again? Great. Let me get out my long-life milk. I even debated once to take an old regular milk carton, save it and then fill it with the long life stuff to fool the kids. OK, I only BRIEFLY thought I would do that. Instead, I gave them the speech about starving kids in Africa and be glad for what we have and that almost always stops the complaining in its track. They drink it anyway cause they love that sugary cereal. Do keep your pantry well stocked with non-perishables. In the US, I could always count on running to a store…something is ALWAYS open in that 24 hour timeframe. Here, most stores are closed on Sundays, some holidays, some strike days in addition to closing before the night really gets going…and the list goes on. You can’t just run out and get whatever you need at any given time. Plan to live your life more like a European.
Our strike on Monday is a little different. Not only do we have the people in the industries mentioned above striking but there will be random roadblocks blocking off traffic, even out here in the country. No sh*t! Can you imagine that happening stateside? You try to take your usual exit onto the highway to get to work and it is blocked off by union workers? Arrrrgggghhhh! Definitely have alternate routes to get to work. That’s a good thing to know anyway. And either listen to AFN in the morning or figure out some basic talk in that foreign language, so you can recognize when the radio announcer is saying there is gridlock on such-and-such highway or that access is blocked off. I always thought it was cool that German car radios allowed a special signal to be played which interrupted your radio listening with alerts of highway delays or staus along the various routes and highways nearby. Obviously, add this tidbit to your list. Listen to your local radio or AFN when driving to work. And maybe you’ll be lucky like I’m not and get a day off from work!
Of course we all want to know when these strikes will happen. The one good thing in all I have said…many are pre-announced. I have a variety of news feeds and sites I regularly check alerting to such stuff…both here, in Germany and in France. France seems to be the winner when it comes to planning strikes…or maybe it’s Italy or Spain. I don’t know. It’s a close race. It seems like I see more and more of them that touch our daily lives more often. Why? Why are there so many strikes? From everything I have read, it’s the same reasons our disgruntled workers have stateside. The money just isn’t there anymore…for retirement, for benefits, for a lot…we have all bankrupted ourselves to oblivion and there is only so much juice you can squeeze out a turnip. Add to that, people are living longer, needing more healthcare and retirement money. We can no longer stay with the status quo. We have to somehow come up with new strategies to stretch out the money already there and learn to live with less….ALL OF US. It’s not rocket science. If I can understand it, I don’t know why the general population or even these labor unions can’t get it.
Do you have anything to say on the subject of strikes? Do you have any advice or personal experience to share? Let’s hear it!