A Love Manifesto for Brussels

I love Brussels. Every time I go there I feel overwhelmed by the city’s capability to encapsulate so many different cultures and ways of life.

To most people travelling to Brussels, the city is one of two things.

The European Parliament
The European Parliament

Either, it is the daily life of the machinery that is Europe. Here are the central institutions of European integration; the European Union, NATO and representations of anyone who wants to deal with Europe be it East or West, North or South. This is where Kissinger and later Obama should call when they claim that it confuses them to call Europe. It is +32 2!

Fromagerie in Brussels
Fromagerie in Brussels

Or, it is a small provincial French town placed in a partly French country. It is a cozy little city where the café life resembles Paris while Christmas is celebrated by countless of German inspired markets. As all small cities of small nations it has promoted itself on certain products; le chocolat, la bière, et une petite statue qui fais pipi.

Christmas market stand
Christmas market stand

It is Europe in the past and it is Europe in the present.

Saint Nicholas Brussels Parade
Saint Nicholas Brussels Parade

But shame to those who only see this, shame to those who go to Brussels and spent a day looking for a small guy peeing or hold meetings near Place Schuman from they come to they leave.

Stilts at Saint Nicholas Brussels Parade
Stilts at Saint Nicholas Brussels Parade

Brussels deserve better. Because Brussels is as many other capitals of old and forgotten empires filled with a plurality of cultures and ways of life that makes it unique and exciting.

October flea market in Brussels
October flea market in Brussels

Once upon a time the Belgian Empire was one of the biggest and most industrialised in the world. And as so many other empires it held colonies around the world and most notably in Africa. Without discussing the terrible history of colonisation and colonialism, it stands to say that Brussels has flourished from this period in a cultural manner. The areas of Brussels are as diverse and interesting as the day is long.

Coiffure Mohamed
Coiffure Mohamed

In particular a lot of African neighbourhoods have made their print on the cities development. In the Southern parts of the city, you can find a world wholly unconnected to the busy and often pretentious networking of the European Quartier or the tourist traps of Grand Place.

Le Petit Chou de Bruxelles
Le Petit Chou de Bruxelles

Here are hair saloons where women sit for hours to get their hair done – African markets and stores and restaurants from any culture in and outside of Africa.

Coiffure Mohamed
Coiffure Mohamed

To the North lies the different worlds of Gare de Bruxelles-Nord. As one tourist guide so truthfully explains, the direction you choose to exit the station at your first visit will define your opinion of Brussels. Either you end up in the dead business district or in the street where windows are filled with halfly dressed women.

Brussels is not Manneken Pis, nor his hidden-away-in-an-alley sister Jeanneke Pis. Rather the peeing figure that symbolises Brussels the best must be Zinneke Pis. The dog on the corner that no one notice. The mixed breed representing the mixed cultures of Brussels.

Stagiares at the European Parliament
Stagiares at the European Parliament

I am a Eurocrat or a EU geek or whatever might be the trendy name for someone who studies and works within the EU setting. I shall never be ashamed of that and I will forever think that it is both fascinating and important. I will take part in the networking and will be stressed with a briefcase under my arms and five meetings for which I am already too late. But I hope that I will forever remember who it is that is really Europe and what reality we actually work for.

Friendly locals in Motangé
Friendly locals in Motangé

And should I ever fear that I might forget, I will go to Motangé and sit at a café and watch what is truly United in Diversity.

Zofka

Brussels – Back at Square One

Sitting in this fancy it-room used by journalists, I have come to the conclusion that Europe is a part of me and I am a part of Europe.

Dank u wel, Brussel

In high school, we went on a study trip to Brussels and Strasburg. We went to see the EU-headquarters and NATO as well as the famous Manneke Pis. It was really interesting and I learned a lot on that trip. Some academic and others not so academic. For instance, I discovered that getting drunk the day before a visit to the European Parliament is not such a good idea. Particularly when it makes you so bone deep tired that you end up snoring out loud to the great enjoyment of your peers.

Parc du Cinquantenaire
Parc du Cinquantenaire

But this blog is not a recount of embarrassing moments, as funny as that might be. Rather I want to ponder a bit on how I’ve ended up where I am today and at this very moment in time, and in many ways that fateful study trip to Brussels back in September 2001 (yes only days after 9/11) holds a lot of the strings.

The trip ended up, at the time, as a bit of a disaster with a major and over the top dramatic argument with two girls from class. It resulted in a major turn of events in my young life. I decided to change high school immediately following our return from Brussels and Strasbourg.

Petunias at la Grand-Place
Petunias at la Grand-Place

I am confident that I would not be the person I am now if I had not changed high school. I ended up spending two years amongst peers who seemed much more open minded and tolerant of others, and it was during this time that I began to fantasize about all the places I wanted to visit after graduating. My first travel on my own was a three weeks work camp in Plouaret, Bretagne, which got me hooked on thematic travels where I got a chance to meet like minded people.

At the European Quarter
At the European Quarter

Somehow, and adding in the teenage fancy for a stupid guy, my love for travel let me to Slovenia through a European Union sponsored programme. The idea of Europe and European cooperation became even more visual to me as I experienced the cross-culture connection to fellow Europeans both Slovene and non-Slovene (and the occasional non-European). Through this year, the idea of Europe had a distinct impact on me and my life, so much that when I left Slovenia I kept the idea of Europe as a central part of who I am.

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

And here I am, in Brussels once again though without any big arguments in the horizon or any meetings following drunken nights. I am visiting Meike, my roommate from Madrid. She is in Brussels to do an internship for Young Journalists.

Visiting her has made me think of not only the decisions that have made my life from the last time I was here, but also about decisions that need to be made in the future. Sitting in this fancy it-room used by journalists, I have come to the conclusion that Europe is a part of me and I am a part of Europe. I want to understand this piece of me and what makes up Europe. I want to study the system of the European Union and the history behind it. I want to direct my studies towards a degree in EU-Studies.

Evening at la Grand-Place
Evening at la Grand-Place

But for now I will enjoy an amazing visit to a beautiful European capital, which is so sadly underrated. I want to explore the European capital. I want to discover Brussels.

Merci beaucoup, Bruxelles

Zofka

Brussels – the Split of Nations

Apart from the abnormal amounts of alcohol and many types of parties, I got to not only explore the office couch but also Brussels – the city.

What I truly enjoy when travelling is to meet up with or visit old friends. This last week I got to spend with Meike, who is doing an internship in Brussels. After living together for half a year it is odd to suddenly be only long distance friends and thus amazing to meet up again.

As an intern Meike works alongside a lot of other young Germans to plan a conference for young journalists. But being so used to people speaking German around me from my stay in Madrid I hardly noticed how often conversations would go on in German. It helped that they all had excellent English skills – much better than myself – and were used to a English speaking working environment.

Meike’s colleagues also proved out to be great fun and Brussels is to the establishment what Sunny Beach is to the sun-tanned teenager. A place for partying and networking. I was introduced to a fast paced Brussels, where bureaucrats were dancing to the Grease soundtrack at Ralph’s Bar, where political parties held large techno parties and where I had to spend many a morning on the couch in Meike’s office because I wasn’t used to the pace and was left with one too many hangovers.

With Meike at Ralph's Bar
With Meike at Ralph’s Bar

The atmosphere was great and the feeling of having so many different nationalities and cultures working together. I constantly felt drawn to the environment and to the place and people. Constantly wondering if perhaps one day, I might find my future in Brussels.

Apart from the abnormal amounts of alcohol and many types of parties, I got to not only explore the office couch but also Brussels.

Brussels by nightfall
Brussels by nightfall

It is a fascinating city which while it is known as the centre of Europe is also the very essence of a split nation. As a state Belgium is split into to fractions – or nations – the French part and the Flemish. While Brussels belongs to the French part, it is surrounded by the Flemish.

Mural in Brussels
Mural in Brussels

It fascinates me how Belgium can exist with two distinctly different nations, cultures – even languages. Belgium is not a historical nation state, but closer to a compromise between France and the Netherlands that they should not have a border thus creating a buffer state.

Add to this the entire third part which is are the European institutions and the multicultural environment surrounding them. Belgium is by all standards a curious country and definitely worth a visit.

Boekhandel in Brussels
Boekhandel in Brussels

Personally, I fell in love with the area St. Gery and the entire café- and restaurant life there. I also both enjoyed a quiet moment with Janneke Pis and Zinneke Pis in order to feel a bit off the beaten Manneke Pis path. And then I got to eat moules frites until I fainted.

Janneke Pis
Janneke Pis

Thank you my beautiful Meike and greetings to all your crazy friends in Brussels. I hope your conference will be a success.

Lot’s of love

Zofka