Conferences in Brussels could give an Englishman an inferiority complex, what with rampant trilingualism and gourmet fingerfood. Seek solace in the Berlaymont
Rubber chicken tastes better in Brussels. That is to be expected in a gastronomic capital awash with taxpayers' money. And, this being the trilingual seat of the European Commission, we'd better provide a translation: rubber chicken is Gummihahn in German, and in French, le poulet en caoutchouc.

Your correspondent sampled its delights at a recent press conference and cocktails reception held by FIEC, an organisation that can only be described as the Confederation of Construction Confederations. FIEC seems to have a pretty relaxed approach – apparently they hold this event "slightly less frequently than once a year".

Brussels in April is not a glamorous destination, unless your idea of glamour is rain and boredom and les peeping shows. Many of the major hotels are on the Boulevard Adolphe Max, which is the main drag through the red light district, so delegates trudged through the rain past the flashing lights of sex shops and strip joints.

The FIEC function was held round the corner from the Berlaymont, Brussels' X-shaped landmark, which used to house the European Commission. Better known as the asbestos-ridden Berlaymonster, it has stood empty since 1991 and its refurbishment costs have tripled to *625m. Walking past it on the way to the FIEC event, it is an unavoidable example of "worst practice".

For an event to be taken seriously in Brussels, it has to include a bevy of interpreters. The big intergovernmental summits have dozens – this one had three, sitting behind a glass screen at the back of the meeting room. The German interpreter just sat there in silence, presumably because the Germans in the audience had no need of her services. She didn't seem to mind; she was getting paid.

The delegates trudged through the rain past the endless flashing lights of sex shops and strip joints

For the remarkably small minority who weren't fluent in English and French, there were headphones providing a simultaneous translation. The English language channel on the nearest set of headphones consisted of an ear-splitting electronic crackle – a cruel continental joke, perhaps.

There were four FIEC bigwigs up on the stage: two Germans, an Italian, and plucky Brit, Peter Andrews, whose day job is at contractor Dean & Dyball. The Italian and Germans disdainfully left their headphones on the table but, in true British style, Andrews sheepishly reached for his whenever someone started speaking French.

Even so, there were signs that the language of Molière is losing its privileges in the capital of Europe. A journalist muttered "pardon" before asking a question in French. Ten years ago, nobody would have apologised for speaking French in Brussels. And the imminent influx of members from Eastern Europe, where French comes a poor fourth behind English, German and Russian, will accelerate the trend.

The morning's schedule was dictated by the relaxed continental pace of life. Unlike London conferences, kick-off was 10:30am. After speeches and questions, we decamped to an elegant hall for the decadent stage of the proceedings: champagne before noon. Waiters in immaculate uniforms circulated with salvers of canapés. Conference fingerfood on our side of the Channel is a bit Delia Smith (if you're lucky) – in Brussels, it is Michelin three-star, and it comes balanced on elegantly curved china spoons, so you don't sully them with your fingers.