It has been a rapid and invigorating week! What incredible places!
As Dora Ostdiek said, there are good people everywhere. Among those I met in my first day of travels to Brussels were two Ireland natives who now work in Brussels for the European Union in various capacities, a couple American students, Matt and Paul both doing study abroad, and Katie, an American living and teaching in Paris.
Upon arrival in Brussels, my two newfound Irish pals overheard a girl talking about the Model European Union at the baggage claim. They promptly introduced themselves to her and then her (Elise) to me. By a stroke of luck, she too had met two people on the plane who worked in relation to the European Union. The four of us split a cab (a much swifter and hassle free trip than my planned train to taxi route) and Elise and I got to enjoy Roland’s narration of the city as we drove through it. Roland lived up to Irish hospitality and footed the bill for the cab—welcome to Brussels!
The highlight of the following day included a three hour walking tour with fellow Drake students led by the Belgium native, nationalist, and enthusiast: Senna. Despite questionable re-writes of history, we got to see most of city center and hear colorful stories to accompany the various buildings and sites. Salwa (a fellow Drake student) and I drooled every time we passed a waffle stand and eventually broke down and split one, and then restrained ourselves until the evening when we got another. In a landmark (not really) first of my life I helped remove stitches from newfound Ozzie friend Tom’s arm at the hostel/hotel.
With our delegation finally in one place, we ventured out together Wednesday—a “free day”. We stuck out like sore thumbs as in broken French we navigated the tram system to the Atomium, a gigantic metallic structure modeled like—you guessed it— an atom. Sans agenda we got to explore the more removed parts of the city; with this group of crazy kids it wasn’t too hard to have a good time. The “ritzy” part of the conference began with an inaugural feast at the city’s Hilton, where we unashamedly went back for thirds on dessert.
Included in the conference were visits to the EU Council building and the Parlemenatarium. There and throughout the week, SUNY brought in several speakers for us. Sitting in the official press room at the council building listening to presentations from the secretariat, and walking through the Parliament’s history at the museum had a feeling akin to being in D.C. The sense of prestige (i.e. multiple security checkpoints and “official” badges) emanated from the massive buildings and the speakers themselves. It’s certainly an institution of which these people were very proud. Coming from the states where the idea of American citizenship and culture are widely accepted, it was interesting to see how the European Union was attempting to create a similar sort of identity despite the challenges of 28 different cultures, more than 20 different languages, and the persistence of multiple currencies. Imagine if tomorrow an organization sprung up trying to unite Mexico, the U.S. and Canada into a North American Union with a single currency—maybe the Northo? From that perspective it becomes quite clear why the EU still has limited power.
These limitations and the rather precarious balance between member state sovereignty and EU power became quite clear as the actual simulation began on Friday. Myself and another Drake student were members of the COREPER (a French acronym that means the council of permanent representatives). Our agenda, set by the Greek presidency (the presidency rotates on a 6 month cycle) dealt with immigration reform. Our first day in simulation was spent discussing border controls and criminal punishment for human trafficking. How fun, right? Quickly myself and Hannah, in addition to the delegates from Austria, Slovenia, and Denmark executed a bloodless and un-resisted coup (not really sure if you can even call it a coup then) of the council. The effects of the previous night’s libations seemed to have left most of the other delegates in a bit of a stupor, so our little group enjoyed lively debate and resolution formation. The next day’s debates on asylum proved equally controversial but the others seemed to have woken up and we managed to pass through two resolutions; at the end of the conference all the coreper resolutions were passed by the heads of government. In other words—success.
I couldn’t have picked a better crew to start my international travels. Whatever we were, “boring” was never an option. We took on the city and its multitude of challenges, for example the “janky” wi-fi and various other questionable moments with gusto, humor, and camaraderie. Particular star moments include the morning wake-ups with One Direction, the nightly walks to the Grand Place for waffles and frites, the unforgettable “party bus” that hit that poor woman’s car not once, twice, but six times, all things “Bruggey,” eating way too much nacho cheese, enjoying “Zelfies” (a new version of the selfie dedicated to Dr. Zeff), seeing the King and all his horses at the palace, and of course taking on the great city of Paris. Though I am ready to put my walking boots to rest for a bit, I would go back to our affectionately coined “ratchet” city with those lively comrades on any given day.
The two days following the conference we enjoyed day trips, first to Bruges in Brussels and then to Paris.
Bruges was in its hey-day a renowned trade city due to its network of canals. Today, its commerce resides mostly in tourism. The combination of romantic canals, magnificent architecture, multiple cadres of swans, several UNESCO world heritage sites including a beautiful monastery, and the frequently scrubbed cobblestone streets made just stepping into the city feel like traveling back in time.
Then Tuesday with a measure of trepidation about the trip into Paris, we (Mary-Kate, Drew, Salwa, Dr. Zeff and I) boarded the Thalys (high-speed train). My first glimpse of the city when we emerged from the metro station stop in the city put my worries to rest. Where I had imagined we would emerge onto a packed, somewhat dirty, and potentially unfriendly scene, instead we were met with a quiet, open, and welcoming view. It was after all a Monday morning in the middle of January at about 10 am. In other words, a low volume of tourists. The buildings were breathtaking; it seemed that everywhere I looked there was a building whose stones were laid before our constitution was even written. Arriving at the Notre Dame my heart seemed to just jump out of my chest for a bit. The sheer size of it, the thought that people had spent so many years building it, and that they believed it was worth that time and investment—We have great reason to be thankful to our ancestors! We are so quick to say we’ve come so far, and in many ways we have, but gazing up at those rose windows it seems quite clear to me that they had some very important things figured out, some of which we seem to have left behind in the name of our great progress. And then the visit to the Louvre: standing in front of the Raft of the Medusa, Liberty Leading the People, The Mona Lisa, the Odalisque and so many other paintings that in my mind had previously only resided on art history textbook pages was a “dream come true.” Walking along the Seine as a squall lifted, seeing a rainbow arch across the river, and standing underneath the Eiffel Tower with my three trusty travel companions capped off a banner final day.
Three outstanding cities, ten fantastic travelers, eight jam-packed, unforgettable days.
And now it’s on to Dublin, the homeland! Gracious, absolutely lovely relatives Aidan and Rita welcome me into their home. Whatever the weeks ahead may hold, I’ve been placed in the best of company.
‘Til next time!