Travel break part two: Brussels!

Nov 10, 2006 • Karen

When I left off, we were checking into our hotel in Brussels: Hotel Ustel. It wasn't the best place. The hotel was apparently made out of two narrow buildings next to each other, whose floors didn't quite match up. The elevator wasn't just tiny--it was a dumbwaiter with headroom. Unlike in Amsterdam, my bed was *not* underneath a shelf so I could hit my head everytime I got in or out, which was nice, but the bedspread had a cigarette-burned hole in it.

Oh yeah, and I heard gunshots outside while I was taking a nap. Twice.

The rate of pickpocketing for our group was ridiculous. While we spent most of our daytime hours in the EU/tourist districts, we tended to eat and recreate in poorer areas. Thus, out of 60 politics students, about eight of us had an attempted pickpocketing. One or two people were able to chase down the culprit, retrieving a camera and an emptied wallet, but still. Pretty bad.

Still, being in the ghetto had some advantages. There were lots of affordable African and Middle Eastern restaurants around. The first night, we ate at Avenidas, a Moroccan seafood restaurant a block or two away from the hotel. The real fun part was Jeff, Dan, and I attempting to explain Meredith's veganism and wheat allergy to our waiter, who spoke plenty of French but very little English. (Note to self: "farine" means "flour" in French.) Eventually, we mostly communicated everything; while the waiter misinterpreted Jeff's "Pas de pain" to mean no bread for *anyone* at the table (and several of us ordered sandwiches!), sooner or later we acquired food and Meredith didn't die. Yay!

On our first morning in Brussels, we went to the European Parliament to hear from a Danish Social Democratic MP, Dan Jørgensen. Despite his talk beginning with a "So, who are you guys? No, really," it went pretty well. Dan was a charismatic, young-ish guy, so he knew how to communicate with us. You could tell he was really enthusiastic about the European Parliament and specifically their REACH Directive (a massive overhaul of chemicals regulation, requiring all chemicals on the European market to go through a battery of safety testing), which he was on the committee for. It would have been better if someone from DIS had told him earlier that we were taking a class on the EU, though--he went through a good deal of basic institutional information that we already knew.

After navigating the security checkpoint line, we also took a tour of the Parliament building. The tour guide spent a ridiculous amount of time talking about this sculpture in the Parliament's atrium, which is supposed to symbolize the European integration process. I mean, her analysis of the sculpture made sense--all the different waves and bars coming together in different places, and that if you flick one of the bars the entire sculpture vibrates--but it was just rather long and involved.

After lunch, we had some free time. So we took lots of pictures in
the big tourist-central square in Belgium and then went into almost every chocolate shop on the street--Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas, La Cure Gourmande, and quite a few others. I was almost out of cash at this point and there was no nearby ATM, so I didn't buy anything. Nevertheless, the chocolate smell in the shops was alone worth tagging along, and some of the stores had free samples! One of the small shops (whose name I unfortunately seem to have forgotten) offered samples of the best truffles I have ever tasted. Upon tasting them, Jeff immediately bought a bag. Mmm... Belgian chocolate is amazing--even better than Swiss chocolate, by my reckoning.

Next we visited Denmark's Permanent Representation to the EU, which supports Denmark's representative in the Council of Ministers. We got a PowerPoint presentation about the office's activities in the Ministry and EU in general. I remember it was very interesting, but I can't recall a thing it said. At this point, my level of sleep deprivation was such that I was mostly focused on not nodding off, so my level of memory retention wasn't the best.

My biggest impression of that visit was of walking around the neighborhood the office was in, Place Schuman and a few side streets. Brussels has perhaps the greatest mix of architecture I've seen in a European city. You have the "quintessential" urban European buildings, narrow-faced flats with tile roofs. There are the old castles and monuments, made of brick or stone or marble. And then you have the EU quarter, full of imposing, impersonal cement-and-glass surfaces that look like someone set the architect's budget a bit too high. American cities are full of office buildings of this sort, of course, but it seemed strange navigating a whole neighborhood of them in Europe. Most of Europe is built human-sized; a some parts are built monarch-sized. The EU is built capitalist-sized.

That evening, Dan, Bernadette, Jeff, Meredith, Erik, and I went to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner. Not only was the food tasty and inexpensive, and the menu an opportunity to practice my French, it was here that I discovered the most amazing tea in the world. Middle Eastern mint tea, unfiltered, served in tiny cute silver teapots. Meredith, Jeff, and I would return here the next night, just for the tea. Drinking it just makes the world seem like a better place.

In order to encourage socialization (and perhaps try to make up for our having a crappier hotel than the other politics group), our study tour leaders Mia and Beth organized a meeting that evening at Maxim's, a bar on the central square, and offered to buy us each a drink. Well now. I didn't recognize most of the items on the liquor menu, but Meredith recommended Grand Marnier. I trusted her judgment--her Bailey's and amaretto liqueur on the rocks concoction at the Amsterdam hotel bar turned out to be scrumptious, like a liquid European truffle--and, indeed, it was tasty. Kinda like Blue Curaçao, only stronger. Hooray for school-funded alcohol experimentation!

We went on to explore Belgium, wandering down random streets, popping our heads in yet more chocolate shops, and huddling under a few common umbrellas when the rain came. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, and after drying off, we congregated in Dan and Erik's room. Dan, Erik, and Bernadette had stopped in a touristy beer shop that had like 100 different kinds of Belgian beer ("buy five get one free!") and wanted to sample their finds. Bernadette was generous enough to let me have half of her cherry beer so she could try more than one, so I did end up trying the famous Belgian fruit beer. I'm still not a beer person...but it was actually pretty good. Brought beer up to about a "wine" level of tastiness, for me. And so we spent the evening lounging in the room, drinking good beer and eating white-chocolate Toblerone, watching a strangely amusing BBC program about elderly drivers. Good times.

The next day, we had our "political actor interview," where we went in groups to interview various people involved with the EU. My group's original interviewee, a guy involved with humanitarian interventions, was unexpectedly called away on business, so instead we got a soft-spoken European Commission bureaucrat who deals with auditing policy. Fascinating. It wasn't a complete loss, though. We'd already heard speakers from the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, so it was nice to hear the perspective of a member of the third branch on the EU as a whole.

Afterward, I went to a Belgian sandwich shop and ordered myself a bona fide croque monsieur in French. I felt like my six years of high school French classes were vindicated.

That evening, we met up with one of Bernadette's college friends, who was studying abroad in Brussels and interning at NATO. She seemed like a nice enough girl, though I had to bite my tongue during her proclamations of Bush-love. We wandered the Belgian streets and she directed us to the best waffle place in Brussels, where Jeff and I split a waffle with strawberries and chocolate. My GOD. I did not know waffles could be that good! The texture was just perfect--soft for the most part, but a little crispy on the edges. And of course the strawberries and chocolate contributed to the deliciousness.

The last day was our American day. We visited NATO in the morning and learned what the heck NATO does now that the Cold War is over. We had lunch in the NATO "canteen," which might very well be the best cafeteria I've ever been in. Delicious entrees, large portions, and an absolutely ridiculous dessert selection. ("Hmm, will I have the creme brulée, the fruit-filled crepe, the satanic chocolate cake, the...?") If *I* were an intern there, I think I'd gain twenty pounds! Our other stop was the US Mission to the EU, where we watched a *hilarious* movie about the importance of the EU to American interests (which included a "phat" soundtrack and a clip of a Britney Spears music video that make everyone collectively go, "What the hell?") and listened to political officer Margaret Diop describe the wonders of being a diplomat.

Both places, I noticed, had a lot more intrusive security than any of the EU offices. NATO was surrounded by barricades and barbed wire, and we had passport checks, bag checks, and a metal detector sweep while dogs sniffed the tour bus. The US Mission didn't have dogs, but the guy went through my purse far more exhaustively than anyone else had previously--he even looked inside my Altoids tin! What, was I gonna offer Ms. Diop an anthrax mint? Given the US's present level of world popularity, though, I can understand why they would want to take such measures.

And then came the overnight bus ride back. Aw jeez. A good third or so of our group was leaving for their travel break travels directly from Brussels, so we had a bit more room to stretch on the way back to Copenhagen. People seemed to be in good spirits, chattering eagerly. Sometime during the evening we watched "Fargo." It made me really homesick. It also made my latent Minnesotan accent temporarily rear its head, to the amusement of the others around me. Oh well.

I barely slept the whole trip. Sleep and cross-country travel do not mix well for me. I was just getting my best sleep of the night when we had to get off the bus to get on the ferry from Germany to Sjælland at 6 AM. Argh. We made it to Copenhagen, grabbed our suitcases, and off we trudged over the foggy cobblestones on our separate, zombie ways. I thanked the heavens I'd left a couple days to rest before leaving the country again. I'd need them.