I'm in Belgium! This is my first trip outside London without the entire Hansard Scholar group, and I think it will definitely help me to have a weekend away. It is not exactly easy for me to live with ten other people in the flat, and while I love the people in my room, I have been used to living in a single since 2005. I feel like I had to relearn how share a living space again. It's the little things that you have to relearn too. Like where whose stuff goes and making sure you're not taking up too much space, or that your stuff you throw on the ground doesn't block someone else's path. Also, rearranging your schedule so you're not keeping the light on when your roommate wants to sleep or getting used to leaving the room to finish your work in the kitchen (there's no real living room in the flat) because the typing would keep your roommates up. It's not too difficult to adjust to, but it is changing habits that have become ingrained in me because I was living alone for so long. It's hard to have privacy as well. I've begun staying up later because then everyone is in bed and I can talk to James on the phone in the kitchen and not feel like (1) I'm disturbing anyone and (2) that no one is listening in to my conversation. I guess it's all a learning experience…
On to the trip... my friend from Northeastern is currently studying in Leuven, Belgium this semester so I decided to take a trip to visit her (not just to save money on housing of course). I got to take the Eurostar train through the Chunnel and luckily this was one weekend where the French transportation was not on strike so I didn't have to deal with delays/strandings in France! The are actually going to move the Eurostar terminal to King's Cross in two or so weeks for improvements in travel, but it is probably also due to the fact that the French don't exactly enjoy entering London via Waterloo Station. Not exactly a warm welcome I'd think. Learning about Liz's study abroad program, I can see the type of differences that various programs can give to students on them. She stays in a semi-small town outside of Brussels that is pretty much like a college town. All the bars and food for her are in a large square two blocks from where her housing is and she lives on-campus too. I can only imagine what a difference living on campus would make. It is hard to do work sometimes in my program because to get to the library you have to take the tube for 20-40 minutes. I think it would be easier to meet people from the school at her program because you're on campus so often too. I only go once a week, if that. I realize that part of that is my choice, I could go to lectures or hang out at the pub after work, but I feel like I have soo much else to do all the time. I enjoyed the proximity she had to things, but she didn't have access to a refrigerator or stove, which would have been hard for me. I like being able to have fruit around for snacks, plus cook some of my meals to save money and get more nutritional value. Her program provides food, but that means she also has to eat on their predetermined schedule and what is on their menu.So in all there are pluses and minuses to every program.
Our first day there we went to Brussels to take a tour of the EU Parliament since that's where my friend interns on her program. It was great to be able to see some of what I talked about in my lectures (we just finished a lecture on EU politics before I left). We saw the large committee rooms and each country decorates their wing of the building with pictures and memorabilia from their home nations. I'm still amazed that once a month for a week they pick up everything and move down to Strasburg to keep the appearance of not being an exclusive club in Belgium. Plus all the nations would need to approve stopping this process, including France. This isn't likely to happen since Strasburg receives plenty of money from restaurants and other businesses by hosting these EP members once a month for a week. We saw the large trunks they keep in the halls of all the documents that are moved to Strasburg for that one week and then brought back to Brussels. They are building new wings/sections for the 10 new members that will be joining EU Parliament in the near future because they are running out room for offices and committee rooms. Makes me wonder when they'll cut off the amount of nation-states that can join. Liz is attending a session with delegates for Turkey's membership the day I leave to return to London. The students in her program get to ask these delegates questions about their potential membership. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to engage in the politics of the EU Parliament that she is working within.
Liz also explained to me about the divide that exists between "Flanders" Belgium and "French" Belgium. Most of the divide deals with language and the side trips we took showed me first hand that in Flanders sections Flemish is predominately spoken and in French, French (obviously!). However, it is of note that Brussels is in the Flanders region but is considered neutral/multilingual. Most of that probably comes from the fact that so many European Parliament members work in Brussels. Maps showing the divide are interesting because Brussels looks like its own little hub in the Flanders region. I find it surprising that these types of divides still exist in countries like Belgium. It's naive I know, but I was under the impression that countries with EU membership had most of their problems worked out. It is cleavages or divisions like this that helped me develop my interest in Northern Ireland for my dissertation. When I think of the United Kingdom I imagine an extremely democratic country that has little internal conflict, but looking at the Northern Ireland peace process it's hard to view any democracy as fully "put together". So I would imagine I should have not been so surprised that such a cleavage exists in Belgium. I thought in going to Belgium I could practice a little bit of my French in preparation for my trip to Paris in December, but since I was staying in a predominately Flemish region and most of the regions I visited were Flemish, it was actually preferred by the shopkeepers, market vendors, etc. that I spoke English. I am glad I had Liz there to let me know about this cultural norm or I might have offended someone who lived there.
Less deep stuff... more about the trip. I think my favorite part was how I could get warm waffles with chocolate glaze right off the street. It is really an ingrained part of the culture and not just a touristy thing. I thought that Belgium waffles would be these elaborate waffles from restaurants, but I got all of mine from street vendors. My one splurge on a waffle was in Brussels where I got one with strawberries, bananas, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. They were always fresh and warm too. In terms of food I also learned that French fries came from Belgium because some army mistook Belgium soldiers for French and that's where French fries came from. I wonder how many other names for foods came from mistaken identity!
I'll have to write more later since I have to be up early for another day of traveling...