Monday, August 12, 2013

The Fate and Frites of Europe: A Saucy Study in Brussels

A plate of moules frites Chez Lyon.
by Nicholas Wood

In April, I applied to the University of Illinois European Union Center to participate in the Brussels Summer Program, organized by the UNC EU Center on behalf of the EU Center of Excellence Network. Soon after, I was selected out of many applicants for a travel grant in June to attend meetings and discussions proffered by representatives of the European Union on topics of international cooperation; issues facing the Euro, environment, and racism in the EU; and the guidelines and hierarchy that direct the European Union.
The Grand Place on my first day: drizzling yet radiant.

My flight into Brussels was unique for me in that I did a substantial amount of research on the European Union and its governing bodies, but did very little research in terms of things to see. Stepping out of the Gare Centrale in downtown Brussels, I realized that this granted me the opportunity to see everything without bias or prejudice, and jauntily I started down towards the Grand Place to begin my first day in Brussels. I arrived three days earlier than the other students, so that I could get the lay of the land and finish touristic sightseeing before we embarked on our professional endeavors. Fortunately, I couchsurfed with a wonderful host who was able to recommend to me not only the aptly seen attractions, like the Atomium, Mannequin Pis, Chez Lyon, churches and museums, but also the hidden gems of Brussels, like where to get the best fries in all of Brussels, and where to go if you’re an ex-pat on a Wednesday evening.

The Atomium
Parting ways with my host, I made my way to the Hotel Euroflat, nestled right behind the European Commission, to attend our opening meeting. After breaking the ice and having the first of many coffees, many of us strolled down the Rue de la Loi to find dinner around the Grand Place. Despite our efforts to find something more celebratory, we commemorated our first night chowing down on the deep-fried delicacies that are Belgian fries and seeing the sights Brussels has to offer before retiring for the full days ahead.

I won’t dare to go into detail for every meeting and session we attended, but suffice it to say, the experience as a whole was remarkable. When one considers that Europe had regularly been at all-out war until a few decades ago, the fact that those nation-states could come together in the pursuit of human rights, international partnership and trade, and celebration of culture is simply astounding. Indeed, the speakers to whom we were introduced proved the merit in cultivating, renewing, and maintaining this Union of European states: no matter how dry the topic of their work (regulations on the mirrors of tractors, for example), everyone was both well-versed and moreover excited about their contributions to the EU. This experience demonstrated that states coming together in good faith to discuss and debate the issues which face our world today can and will move seemingly immovable mountains.
27 flags for 27 countries. Now 28; welcome Croatia!

Despite the de facto appellation of Europe’s capital, Brussels is still in many ways just the de jure capital of Belgium, a small nation-state about the size of Maryland snuggled in between the economic superpowers of France
and Germany. In many ways, I think this is one of the most poetic aspects of the mission of the European Union: in a democracy, no country reigns supreme, and even the smallest of them speaks with a voice as equally strong as the largest.
Belgian fries with sauce andalouse

Photo credit: Nicholas Wood

Nicholas Wood is graduating this August from University of Illinois with a BA in French Studies and minors in Linguistics, Russian, and Global Studies with a concentration in Governance, Conflict, and Resolution. After studying abroad in Istanbul, Turkey; Paris, France; and Moscow, Russia, he is looking forward to an international career to make use of his language skills and cultural interests.


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