This is a disclaimer: I seriously considered studying in Brussels for a semester. I argued with my parents about it, tooth and nail, until they convinced me to go on this trip and see if I liked it as much as I said I would.
So did I?
Not really. I understand the appeal though. This is a city at work. This city has things to get done, people to see, thjngs to do, and you’re in the way. The EU is headquartered here (more or less, as opposed to offices in Strasbourg and Luxembourg). Almost the entire city works for them. To me, it was dirty, rainy, disorganized, and much more French-speaking, which I loved.
Brussels, to me, isn’t a beautiful city, but it is a real one. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate it as I should have done, as I was still haunted by the beauty of Prague and Paris.
Brussels has a 9-5 job, kids to pick up from school, and groceries to buy before arriving home from work. It’s a strange mix of Dutch and French, from Wallonia and Flanders. We did encounter some of the best carry-out food I’ve ever had here, since a lot of our days were packed full of activities.
Cultural activities: a walking tour of the Grand-Place (cut short by freezing rain), seeing Mannekin Pis (that bizarre little boy statue that pees into a fountain), and lots of waffles. A rundown of European Union history given by our local guide and director of the MU-Brussels internship study abroad program, Gareth Harding. A visit to the Parlimentarium, a museum about EU’s parliament was packed in there. A visit to the oldest brewery in Brussels happened, too, where we got to sample kriek, a cherry beer that I really enjoyed.
Journalism activities: visitied the State Department’s European Media Center (Hub) where I promptly lost all of my cool. Then we headed to Thomson-Reuters, the wire service, to peek into their (ever-busy) offices. Finally we spent time at Hill+Knowlton, which was especially interesting to me as I’d never even contemplated lobbying or consulting work before, and it sounds very interesting.
The most memorable thing Gareth told us during our little brief was that Belgium was, for all intents and purposes, a country divided. Generally the northern part of the country speaks Dutch and the southern part speaks French, with some German in the east. And this division falls quite neatly along a line straight through the country. Brussels is the only bilingual city where both languages are heard widely, though the entire country lists French, Dutch, and Germans as it’s official languages.
He also mentioned something else: “The past weighs heavily on Europe.” That was something that I saw ring true no matter where I was, from Prague, to Paris, to Brussels, to Rome. Everything is so old. Old, and everyone seems to know its history. What seems like a complicated narrative to me, an American who primarily learned about Presidents and North American history, is very close history to Europeans. I have never seen my country invaded, nor do I know anyone who’s seen America invaded. But many older Belgians remember German occupation, and in Prague it was even more striking to hear people discuss the fall of communism as if it happened mere weeks ago, not decades.
I didn’t fully appreciate the complex history of Europe until I was there, in Brussels, outside of the institution that European countries formed in part to help prevent WWIII. What I’m struggling to put into words is: european history is much more intertwined, multi-layered, and nuanced than any American history that I’ve encountered (though American-Soviet Cold War Policy is giving me a run for my money).
I don’t miss Brussels, except perhaps the people I met while I was there. It was a nice interlude between the sights, sounds, and sheer surreality of Paris and the eventual awe I’d have in Rome. All in all, it’s a real city. And I suppose that needs to count for something.