To me, trams represent an ancient world. I’d seen the photos of trams in Miranda near where I grew up, but the photos were black and white, which meant that they were taken about as far back as history went. Seeing them still running in Melbourne and in Sapporo didn’t change that, and when I arrived in Brussels, the trams just added to the feeling of antiquity that the buildings created.
It was a delight then, to find that I needed to catch a tram to work on my first morning in Brussels. I threw on my coat, slung my bag over my back and stepped out into the cold wet with a grin. The grin didn’t last long. It took me over an hour to catch a tram, and three passed by in that time.
The first didn’t stop because I didn’t wave it down. It seems that it’s not enough to stand up and start to get your wallet out – you actually need to put your arm in the way of the tram.
I got that right the second time, but the driver refused to open the doors for me. Bastard! He pulled out just as I started to knock on the door.
Sitting right behind the second tram, the third seemed to assume that I had just gotten off, and ignored the thumb I stuck out over the tracks. The driver didn’t even look at me.
The only reason I managed to catch the fourth, now shivering miserably, was that the driver opened the door for someone else, but still looked at me like I was an idiot standing next to the front door. I ran down to where the other guy was and followed him on.
Then I had to go through the process of buying a ticket. If you haven’t bought a ten-trip pass from the stations, then you have to buy a single trip ticket from the driver, and that costs almost twice as much per trip. Still, I had no other choice on this first morning, and didn’t know that the ten-trip pass existed anyway, so I distracted the driver from watching the tracks and was given a credit card sized magnetic ticket. By now, all the passengers were looking at me like I was an imbecile, making it even more humiliating to ask where I could validate the ticket. After giving me the most condescending look I’ve ever had to suffer, one woman moved out of the way of an orange box with flashing lights. I managed to stamp my ticket and headed for a corner to bury my face for the rest of the trip.
I handled the trip home more easily, thanks to the explanations of my colleagues. When the tram stopped, I looked closely and found the green strip running down between the folding doors and pressed it. I’d seen it that morning, but assumed it was just safety covering for bolts holding the narrow panel in place. Of course, it’s obvious to anyone who’s grown up in Belgium.
My story doesn’t end there. The following week I was trying to catch a bus in town and found myself in the same predicament. The driver didn’t open the door and there was no button or green strip in sight. I was just starting to panic, when a lady came up beside me, and with the same condescending look I’d hoped never to see again, pushed what I had thought was the blinker. For me, these tricks were like finding secret panels in a castle. I was truly in another world.