How an incorrectly labelled parking sign in Brussels cost us an arm and a leg

"Yes, she had parked beside a no parking sign, but the restriction end-date painted almost illegibly upon it had already expired. She’d even taken a photo of it."

How an incorrectly labelled parking sign in Brussels cost us an arm and a leg
Temporary parking signs waiting to be placed around Brussels.

What, apart from an outbreak of food poisoning, can be more embarrassing for a dinner party host than to find that a guest’s car has vanished from outside the house at going-home time?

Oh the shame of it: my wife and I bid farewell to friends on the doorstep after a jolly get-together just before Christmas and shut the door. A couple of minutes later the bell rang and one guest was back to report the disappearance of her wheels.

“Are you sure?” we asked. Yes, she emphatically was.

We walked along the pavement to the spot where her car no longer was and stared helplessly at the empty space, concerned, if I’m honest, not just about the car’s disappearance, but about our social credit rating when word of a car theft in our street got out.

But what’s this? The car had been parked right beside a red warning triangle marking a temporary restriction because of road works: the car had obviously been towed away by the authorities rather than nicked by a dodgy character.

This was no comfort to our guest. Yes, she had parked beside a no parking sign, but the restriction end-date painted almost illegibly upon it had already expired. She’d even taken a photo of it.

So where was the car now? What do we do next?  And crucially, can we ever hold our heads high in polite society again?

Times like this call for clear, levelling-headed thinking, but in the absence of any such thing I was accompanied my distressed  guest to the nearest police-station, although neither of us were very optimistic.

Oh we of little faith: a very calm, helpful, night-duty police officer took just a few minutes to trace the car to a car pound, albeit a distant one in a dark piece of no man’s land in the boondocks near the commune rubbish dump off a viaduct somewhere.

But, I said, the car pound will be closed by now and this lady needs her car first thing in the morning and she lives in different commune far, far away from here. He shook his head, assuring us that the car pound was open round the clock just for the motorist’s convenience.

He was sorry for the inconvenience, but the car-pound people were very nice and would release the car on payment of the fine.

We enquired why it was necessary to tow it away instead of just issuing a fine.

The answer was watertight: the parking restriction was vital to allow large vehicles diverted into a neighbouring street to sweep into our street during a temporary diversion affecting the whole area: my guest’s car had blocked a coach and caused a tailback.

We returned home, jumped in my car and, after a few directional problems which fooled the Satnav due to road works and closed traffic lanes, we finally found the office of the car pound down a dark narrow lane.

It all felt a bit scary in the small hours of the morning, but we emerged into the welcoming light of what could have been a motel entrance. There was a reception area with comfortable sofas and chairs and we were greeted by a smiley chap behind a desk who had clearly been trained to deal sympathetically with carless people – his only category of customers.

Soon, after a significant payment had been removed from a credit card, the car was retrieved and we began the journey home in tandem.  .

Once again road works got in the way: a confusing network of roads underneath the viaduct should have lead onto a bridge out of no-man’s land, but the direction towards the city was blocked by a cement mixer and there were no diversion signs. My Satnav was making no sense. I stopped to consult my guest whose Satnav made no sense either.

Then I noticed movement in the dark beside a buttress holding up the viaduct. A shadowy male figure slowly rose from a camp chair beside a pile of bedding and started waving to  guide us out of the maze in what seemed to be the wrong direction. “That’s the only way out of here back to town” the figure declared, or words to that effect, in French. He was clearly used to having his peace disturbed by weirdos in cars collected from the pound.

With no alternative but to trust his advice we waved him thanks and goodnight and within minutes both our SatNavs readjusted themselves and lead us back home and into the light.

It had all been an experience and we have no complaints: all participants in this episode  had been calm, helpful, just doing their jobs, not being judgemental.

If anything this story is about the vagaries of signs and signage, and there’s still a question mark over whether the badly-scrawled end-date on the no parking warning triangle in our street was to blame for the whole saga.

We may never know: I think my guest has decided it’s probably best to forget the whole thing.

But I still think of the figure under the viaduct and whether he’s still there, and whether I should go back with some hot soup and sandwiches at the very least.

The problem is I don’t think I could find the same spot again, especially if those unfathomable roadworks are still there.

Meanwhile, the other end of our street is now entirely closed and, in addition, new parking triangles have just returned to the very spot near us where our dinner guest came a cropper before Christmas. This time, though, the signs are very clearly marked in white paint with an end-date of March 3.

Staying away until after that date,  or using public transport, is strongly advised.

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