“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
The filling protocol of petrol stations in Belgium defies both belief and logic.
For the benefit of my North American reader, I should just explain that over here a petrol station is what you would call a gas station. Why you would call it a gas station when it’s a place where you fill your car with petrol I have no idea.
Parenthetically, it does make me wonder whether, when Americans speak of ‘passing gas’, they are referring not to a perfectly natural, albeit potentially anti-social, bodily function but actually a leakage of petrol from the southern end of the alimentary canal, which to me sounds like something requiring urgent medical attention.
And possibly the precautionary presence of a fire engine.
Anyway, back to Belgium.
Madame and I sometimes venture forth from our rural idyll in Tranquility Base and make a trip to the UK. This typically involves taking the overnight ferry from Zeebrugge.
Just to be sure that my New World reader is on the same page as the rest of us, I should clarify that Zeebrugge is in Belgium, which is a separate country lying to the north of, but not the same as (albeit largely indistinguishable from) France.
It’s near Europe, if you’re still struggling.
Fuel costs are significantly lower in France and Belgium than in the UK. It is therefore logical to fill up as close to Zeebrugge as possible, thereby having a virtually full tank when arriving in the UK.
It doesn’t take long to drive across Belgium (the German army has done it in about five minutes a couple of times). Previously, we’ve always topped up somewhere on the motorway system in northern France. On this occasion, however, we left it until we were actually in Belgium.
Now, under normal circumstances – i.e. in any country in the world apart from Belgium – you put the fuel in the tank and then go to pay for it.
Occasionally in France, when the caisse is closed for the holy ritual of lunch, you instead stick your bank card in a machine at the pump. This pre-authorises you to buy fuel up to a value that far exceeds the capacity of your tank in any case. Then you just fill up and drive off.
But neither of these eminently sensible practices is good enough for Belgium. Oh, no.
There are two petrol stations in Belgium en route to Zeebrugge. We drew up at an unoccupied pump at the first one. In the mistaken belief that I was still in civilisation, I unholstered the line, pushed the nozzle into the tank and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happened and the pump display stayed resolutely blank. Looking around in a state of mounting perplexity I eventually spotted a small peeling sign on the pump that – with a succinctness that, in its own brutalist way, was almost beautiful – displayed, in French, Flemish and English the following instructions: ‘1. Pay 2. Fuel’.
Okay then, fair enough. But where to make the payment?
After a fruitless visit to the shop (too easy), I spotted a machine which, helpfully, had ‘Payment’ written on the side. A bemused-looking lady was standing in front of it. It wasn’t working.
There were two other payment machines on the forecourt, each with a bemused woman standing in front of it. They weren’t working either.
After a brief but expletive-laden internal dialogue, we drove on to Plan B.
A prominent notice made it clear that it was necessary to go into the shop and pay before attempting to get any fuel.
Having entered the shop, the following dialogue then took place:
Me: ‘number eleven please’
Bored Girl Behind Counter: ‘how much do you want?’
Me: ‘well, I don’t know yet’
BGBC: ‘what do you mean?’
Me: ‘Well, I won’t know how much I need until I’ve filled it up’
BGBC: ‘fifty euros maybe? Twenty?’
Me: ‘but if I pay fifty and don’t need that much, then what happens?’
BGBC: ‘then you come back here and I give you a refund. What about twenty?’
Me: ‘but that might not be enough, then what?’
BGBC: ‘then you come back and pay more’
Me: ‘well, why can’t I just get what I need and then come and pay you?’
Me: ‘What a stupid, stupid, stupid system’
Me: (knowing when I’m beaten) ‘Alright, twenty then’
Truly, at that moment there was nothing in the world I would have liked more than to put precisely €19.99’s worth of fuel in the tank, go back to the shop and ask for my change.
Alas, as usual, I was too trigger-happy and the fuel cut off sharply at €20 on the dot.
At least now I understand where Magritte got his inspiration.