Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Abroad again at last - from Brussels
I like Brussels.
At first I didn't: the area around the EU offices on a Sunday is a sad, dirty mess of empty streets (except for some kinda scary people) , and Metro stations in shockingly awful condition. I know what it looks like on a Sunday because I went there instead of my hotel when I arrived - oops. Thank goodness for that Moroccan cab driver - he didn't speak any of my languages, I didn't speak any of his, but somehow, we had a nice conversation and he got me to my hotel, off Stalingrad street, in a very lively neighborhood, a mix of natives and immigrants and a fair number of non-touristy restaurants.
I have to note that the people working the ticket counter at the airport train station were quite helpful, and though it took me forever to finally find the metro station from the train station (finally saw the one, obscured sign telling me where it was), yet again navigating mass transit in a different country, in a different language, has made me feel like the adventurer I like to imagine myself to be. I just wish I'd put where the hotel was on my map before I left Oregon, not just where I was working while here.
I like Brussels - it's got the grime of Portland, but SUCH a better personality. It looks like a lot of life happens on the street - eating, drinking, socializing - I always like that in a city I'm visiting. But you don't sit out in a cafe to be seen - you do it because the beer, the wine, the food, the company, the people watching, the normalcy of it all for anyone, everyone. I love the international flavor of the city, with people and languages from all over the globe all around me. And people of all economic backgrounds ride bicycles in the neighborhood of my hotel - not ultra-expensive things that could be in the Tour de France, but bikes of a variety of shapes and sizes, and they dress in normal clothes, rather than biking clothes, making bike riding seem all that much more accessible - just as I remember it to be in Europe. My hotel is just the kind I like - and 30 Euros less a night than what my colleagues are paying, and in a neighborhood full of life as opposed to the deadness of the EU neighborhood. I'm at the Hotel A La Grande Clochem - found it on Trip Advisor - and I have one of those tiny tiny European hotel rooms that I guess make a lot of people crazy, since the receptionist keeps asking me, "How do you like your tiny room?" I love it. Gemütlich. The hotel is in Place Rouppe, a plaza with a roundabout with a statue and fountain in the middle, just the stereotype you want in Europe, and just a few blocks from several tourist sites, including Manneken Pis (which is, indeed, nothing special). There are two outdoor cafes next door, and a block away, the Metro station and shops, many run by immigrants, selling all kinds of computers, phones and accessories. I ride the subway about 30 minutes to get to the EU office, and it gives me time to people watch, walk, and collect my thoughts.
My first day, I pushed myself hard to stay up as late as possible, hoping it would help me with jet lag. After unpacking, I walked around the neighborhood, and stopped at Au Saint d'Hic, a small cafe almost right next door, grooving on toast in a mushroom sauce and a salad and a delicious cappuccino. You gotta love that name - d'Hic. It's so me. I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted, but I stuck to just this neighborhood - no Atomium for me until I can see it with Stefan. I finally crashed at 6 p.m., and woke up quite refreshed for the work day with fellow researchers, which was a good one (as was the breakfast at the hotel!). That night, we all went out for a mind-blowingly fantastic seafood dinner at Bij den Boer. I spent WAY too much money. But it was just so good, and the setting so lovely. Walking back to my hotel from the Metro, I could see the cathedral in the distance, lit up in purple against the night sky. Lovely.
For some reason, the next morning, my Macbook alarm clock failed - I guess I didn't set it right. Luckily, some people were quite loud getting into the elevator next to my room, making me up with enough time to throw on my clothes and make it to work that day in plenty of time.
Sadly, ultimately, the work that brought me to Brussels turned out not to be as nice as the city. I had forgotten just how much comments based on my nationality can hurt - comments along the lines that, because I'm an American, I can't possibly understand a particular issue or statement. Assumptions that I haven't lived abroad, that I don't follow international news more than even more Europeans. I had forgotten that people will make all sorts of unkind observations regarding my nationality that they would never say to someone from any other country. Saying some of the things that have been said to me because I'm an American to someone from another country over the years, including a couple here in Brussels from people I considered colleagues - "that is exactly what someone from France would say" or "I'm not sure you can understand a European context because you're Mexican" or "You obviously don't know what's happening in Greece, because your Canadian" - would be outrageous. I try to shrug it off as misplaced anger - the government of my country has done incredibly dreadful, shameful things that have had dire consequences in the world, and cutting me with a remark makes people feel like they are getting back at the country. Or I think, well, they want to feel superior, to get that special boost that apparently comes with putting down someone from the USA, with a smile and maybe even an eye roll and a small laugh at my expense - fine, go for it if that floats your boat. I rarely respond to such, as it rarely happens - but it does happen.
I never assume an idea is automatically bad because it comes from a person from a particular country. I never assume someone from a particular country automatically agrees with their government. And I never assume there is something so unique in the world - some aspect of human nature or community - that it really cannot be found anywhere else. Wish more people thought that as well.
None of this happened that first day of work - it was all the next day, when my guard was a little down, having been made to feel so welcomed and comfortable by the core group. That second day, I also had some of my presentation points denied by one of the attendees, someone who represents an old-school way of thinking about my field, someone who is quite threatened by non-traditional trends. They were arguments I would have expected a decade ago, not now. I'll write more about that on my professional blog. But that onslaught of mischaracterizations about the topic I had just presented on made me feel rather lonely in that room full of Europeans, as I tried to spar, professionally, dispassionately, in a fact-based way, with someone determined to dismiss all of my points in front of everyone.
I held it together, stay engaged in the rest of the day, smiled a lot, tweeted good things about the day, and stopped for drinks with a few of the organizers before heading back to my hotel - and got another anti-American slight from someone. I just smiled and took another sip of beer.
Came back to my hotel and got a falafel from a sad little place near my hotel - though the falafel was quite good, made fresh right in front of me. And then couldn't fall asleep until 3 a.m. - a combination of jet lag and anxiety over how the day had gone. Wondering how different the day would have been had that one person not been there, feeling quite ambushed and, well, robbed of my big moment that I had looked forward to for weeks (and, in a way, years). Second guessing everything. No, not at all a good day and night.
So, I'm siting here after just four hours of sleep, wondering what to do between now and my flight at 3. Feeling so tired. But there's nothing to be done - I have to check out by 11, and I don't want to leave my room until the last minute since I've no where to go - I hate looking for bathrooms out and about, I really do.
All that said - I still really like Brussels. I wouldn't at all mind coming back here. But not to work for this particular agency. Which I'm pretty sure is never, ever going to happen again...
On to Barcelona.