Having a Shit time in Antwerp

It’s been 13 days since the trauma.

13 days to try and put down in words the experience of Friday 9th June.

I’m not sure where to start but I’ll persevere with this one – for it is a tale that I simply must share with someone, or else I’ll not even believe it happened and start to question my own sanity…

For those of you that don’t remember much about Friday the 9th of June, let me remind you.

It was a special day.

The weather was glorious. It was the hottest day of the year so far, reminding me of the reason why I have subjected myself to such a long time in Belgium – the weather is marginally better here than in Northern Ireland.

June 9th also saw the start of that most special of quadrennial events – the football nirvana that is The World Cup. The biggest sporting event in the world – The Beautiful Game competed by the best teams in the world (and Angola) was starting it’s month-long festival once again.

So how did I spend the hottest Friday evening of the year so far? Sitting in a terrace enjoying a few cool beers in the warm evening sun? Eating ice cream at the seaside? Swimming in an outdoor swimming pool perhaps? Sitting on a terrace watching Germany defeat Costa Rica in the opening game of the World Cup – a match that turned out to be a 6 goal thriller?

Err, no. Not quite.

As the rest of the post-office work crowd started to fill the many terraces around Antwerp’s beautiful Grote Markt, mingling with the tourists and the students that were already outside enjoying the sun, I donned Wellington boots and green waterproof overalls to prepare myself for, quite literally, 3 shit-filled hours.

Let me explain:

A few weeks ago, an email was sent out to those of us in the company that work in the logistics arena, inviting us to a half day seminar, where we were going to find out a bit of upcoming developments on the system that we work on, SAP. The seminar was to be given by a representative from SAP and was to be followed by what had been intriguingly described as a “secret event” and then a meal and drinks afterwards.

Employees from one of our biggest clients were to join us for the occasion as well.

It all sounded like a decent way to spend a Friday but history told me to proceed with caution before committing to any events organised by my employers.

In the past, I have blindly said yes to these things, only to find out that, thanks to my hectic social calendar, I had double booked and then had to back out at the last minute much to the consternation of my employers.

June 9th rang a bell in the dark recesses of my mind, so I didn’t accept the invitation immediately, leaving it for a while until it came to me just what the special occasion was.

After two days, nothing came to mind and so I announced that I would be attending.

It was only as I returned home that evening, stuck in one of Belgium’s famous traffic jams, that I realised just what that event was – the start of the 2006 World Cup. I cursed myself for my stupidity and promptly tried to find ways to get out of the event.

Alas, no get-out clauses materialized, no sudden illness to me, friends, family or indeed the pet poodle that I don’t have, so it was with a heavy heart that I took part in the occasion, in the knowledge that for the first time in my life I was going to miss the opening match of the World Cup. (Mental note to self – buy sick puppy).

The seminar went fine - it was interesting and informative and it was great to catch up with some of the guys from the client – a client that I had previously worked with on an enjoyable project, in fact a project that provided me with an opportunity to meet one of the most special people in my life – a lovely Belgian girl who I lived with and spent two and a half years in relative happiness with. (Until the messy divorce of course.)

After the seminar, we then headed to the location of our “secret” event – Suikerrui 21, just by the spectacular Grote Markt in Antwerp’s old town.

The address seemed strangely familiar to me but I couldn’t figure out why that should be and as we headed into my adopted home town’s centre with the sun beating down gloriously from above my hopes were raised – perhaps we were after all going to see the football – taking in a little kroegentocht around the many cafes and bars in the town centre that would undoubtedly be showing the game.

I realised that I was kidding myself thinking that this should be the case – in my experience the worlds of football and IT rarely cross, but even I had no idea just how shit the event was to be.

Shit being the operative word - the event turned out to be a walking trip through the city of Antwerp’s sewage system.

I kid you not.

A recent addition to the city’s many undoubted attractions; the Antwerp “sewer tour” has been going for over a year now and has been a huge success, with the tour fully booked and a waiting list of 2 months.

In fact, I have actually tried to take my mother on the tour during her last visit but it was booked up. Mum was horrified at the idea but I was disappointed, thinking that it would have been a “fun time” and “something different.”

Believe me folks – Mother knows best.

So at 18:00 CET, June 9th, 2006, as approximately 1 billion people worldwide tuned in to become part of the one-month festival of football, we set off for the tour’s starting point - a cavernous hole just off Suikerrui, the stench already quite overwhelming.

It was with some reluctance, it has to be said, that I swapped the warm evening sunlight, the cool beers and the World Cup kick-off for the cool, dark, smelly underbelly of Antwerp but that’s what I did.

Our guide for the trip introduced himself as Johan and he apologised for suffering from a sore throat but that he would do his best to explain everything to us and answer as many questions we may have in the group’s adopted language, English – which had been decided upon not just for my benefit – but because we also had an American girl and a guy from Wallonia in our group.

The first question that sprang to my mind was if he thought that spending his working day in the sewers of Antwerp had anything to do with his physical condition but I thought it might be so churlish to do so at such an early stage and anyway – it was difficult to get a word in edgeways with the guy – this was one enthusiastic tour guide – this man definitely knew his shit.

Unfortunately for him, his enthusiasm was hardly reciprocated by the group as we contemplated the prospect of wading in Antwerp’s shit for the next couple of hours.

He was dressed in the same outfit as us, but rather worringly, he was also carrying a rather large backpack. I wondered what the hell was in it and why he would need it.

“Smells a bit, doesn’t it” my musings were interrupted with his rather unnecessary comment “… but don’t worry – you’ll get used to it” he happily informed us.

I had to disagree with him on that one – but once again, I held onto my tongue. If I could have held my breath for two hours, I would have done that as well but the fear of turning as green as the overalls I was sporting was not something I was comfortable with.

My spirits were raised, however, as we got into a boat.

OK – it was a small, wobbly boat, with not too much in the way of facilities, but anything that meant we didn’t have to wade knee-deep through the effluent of Belgium’s second largest city compared in a favourable light to even the most exclusive of cruise liners.

It soon became apparent that my relief was only temporary, for almost as soon as we had got onto the boat, we were being ushered off it again (alternating between one side and then the other to stop the boat tilting over, presumably causing us to do the unthinkable and fall in - head first), because the water that we had sailed in was actually a man-made dam built for the purpose of the tour - presumably to break people in gently before making them walk through the foul smelling water.

And then the tour began in earnest - the electric lights that had aided us in our progress by boat diminishing in number as well as brightness, enforcing us to crank up our torches that we had been thoughtfully provided with.

The small torches worked on a dynamo which was powered by turning a small handle on the torches side.

“We may encounter some rats along the way. They used to be afraid of us, when we first came down but now they’re getting used to us, we see more and more of them,” Johan matter-of-factly informed us.

The handles on the torches whirred a bit faster.

As we followed Johan, he stopped frequently to point out various “features” of the sewer system:– overhanging pipes that the ‘mud’ (as he annoyingly kept referring to it as – never once using the word ‘shit’) used to fall directly out of, the new pipes that had replaced this system, chimneys that were used to extract the methane gas into Antwerp’s air, signposts indicating which streets we were walking underneath, a system that used gates and the tide of the Scheldt to flood and therefore clean the sewers periodically and it seemed every piece of iron that we passed was talked about in great detail.

Not to mention a colony of South American spiders that had quite literally come off a banana boat over a century ago and decided the sewers of Antwerp were a great place to hang out and breed. Errr…Copacabana beach or Antwerp’s sewers? I know which I’d have preferred – but then again – what choice did they have? We were there of our own free will and had paid good money for the privilege. Or at least my employers had.

“It doesn’t happen anymore,” Johan explained, “after loading the banana boats, they now gas the hold of the boats, to preserve the bananas and kill any unwanted passengers.”

“And what – Antwerp is killing the poor buggers by a slow death of human-generated gas?” I didn’t ask our host.

And then of course, there were the rats.

Not too many of them it has to be said – but enough to have me thanking my foresight in tucking my overalls into my boots. I didn’t want one of the furry vermin climbing up the inside of a carelessly flapping overall-leg and deciding to nest there.

On and on we walked. Under Antwerp’s Grote Markt, the Conscienseplein, the Jesuit Church, each place helpfully signposted for us.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we then reached what was undoubtedly the “highlight” of the tour – at least in the eyes of “Jovial Johan the Shit Expert” (as I was by now beginning to think of him).

“Here we have a large junction, a meeting of several sewers. Impressive, isn’t it?” He showed us the object of his admiration – a large square hall-like structure were, uhm, several sewers met. Impressive indeed.

“123 square metres wide – the same as the Antwerp cathedral is tall – an easy to remember number”

Mate – I don’t think there’s much of this tour that I’m not going to forget, I thought to myself.

“Story has it that around a hundred years ago, there was a huge banquet held down here for all the workers in the sewers. Here is a photograph of it”

As we stood there, breathing in the foul stench, he showed us a photo of about 40 people happily dining at a huge dinner table in the square that we were currently standing on, I couldn’t help but think that the story, if you’ll excuse the pun, sounded like a load of shit.

Apparently Johan agreed.

“But I don’t believe it - I think it’s fake”

And who am I to argue with Johan’s take on things? Like I said – this guy knew his shit.

And then, we came, quite literally, to the light at the end of the tunnel, a spiral staircase that led to the part of Antwerp that I like the best. The part above ground level. Call me old fashioned if you like.

“OK folks – if you want” (if you want!!) “you can use the hoses provided to wash off any mud” (there was that word again). “… and then leave the sewers to start the over-ground part of the tour.”

Over-ground part of the tour??! Jesus – he wasn’t done with us yet - there was more to come.

Fed up with it all and as my shit-dwelling compatriots proceeded to wash the ‘mud’ from their boots; I decided to see about meeting up with some people for the second match of the evening.

Walking to the edge of the tunnel, near the exit above, I tried to get a signal on my phone. As I prayed for a few bars of signal to appear so that I could extricate myself from this nightmare situation, my nightmare proceeded to get even worse as I was on the receiving end from a splash of liquid on my head from one of the old overhanging pipes. It wasn’t that much and probably didn’t warrant the girly squeal that I heard coming out of my mouth but let’s just say it wasn’t that nice a feeling…

Pissed off, hot and smelly we emerged into the bright, warm sunshine of Antwerp and onto…..the fucking terrace of a pub, interrupting a few people’s peaceful early evening drink. The look of surprise and bemusement on their faces was a picture, was matched only by the look of embarrassment on ours as we quickly stripped off and proceeded to order some beers much to the frustration of our trusty guide.

He evidently wanted to continue with the tour. Apparently we were not so eager.

During our drink I got cornered by Johan, who was seemingly curious as to how I got to live in the city that was a home and a place of work for him, as well as home to “one of the most advanced sewage systems of its time”

“Are you English?”

Not beating around the bush and to avoid much deliberation over the point (unlike Johan’s protracted tales) “No I’m from Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast” hoping that the awkward silence that this usually is greeted with would end the conversation there and then.

Having been accosted in a pub by the world’s biggest tram freak a few evenings earlier ‘a story in itself), I wanted to nip this conversation in the bud.

“So what’s it like over there now?” he enquired.

“Well – we’re not killing each other as much as we used to” was my deadpan response.

He got the hint and didn’t pursue it any further making me feel a little guilty.

“I really enjoyed the tour” I rather unbelievingly heard myself saying.


“I do have to say one thing though”

“Err, yes?”

“I’m amazed that you spent the last two hours explaining everything to us in a language that is not your native tongue and considering the subject matter you didn’t say shit once!”

He smiled and a few colleagues sniggered. I was only half-joking.

As I reflect back on that one hour walk in Antwerp’s Friday evening sun, it’s hard to imagine a more embarrassing moment in my life as we trudged in the heat back to our starting point carrying our shit-covered overalls and our welly boots, with Johan pointing out places that we had been underneath a few short minutes earlier – much to the amusement of the thousands of people that were sitting on Antwerp’s many terraces.

As we approached Antwerp’s Grote Markt, Johan offered us an escape.

“If you want to avoid any embarrassment, we can take a detour back to the start to avoid these people,” he offered.

“Let’s just get back to the start in the shortest way possible and get this over and done with as soon as possible” seemed to be the collective response and we lowered our heads and proceeded a walk of shame through the heaving hordes of people.

It was ok for the rest of the group but this was my home town and the Grote Markt has had the pleasure of my presence on more occasions that I care to mention. Naturally I bumped into a few people that I felt the need to explain what I was up to.

I’m not sure they believed me.

I felt sorry for Johan though – he was still wearing all his overalls, his welly boots and carrying that backpack – a backpack that I never did find out what the contents were.

If, even after reading this sorry tale you’re still interested, check out http://www.ruihuis.be/ for more details…you crazy, crazy fool…