Euroculture Groningen Class on a Mission: Exploring the Brussels Jungle

From 28-31 October 2012, the MA Euroculture Groningen class went on an excursion to Brussels. Armed with cameras, (digital) compasses, and semi-rested minds due to the previous week’s reading week (which was by most interpreted as a relaxing holiday), we set off for the six-hour train ride and waved goodbye to some of our teachers.

Floor Boele van Hensbroek | floorbvh@gmail.com

Wildest first impression

floor1After arrival, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and started exploring Europe’s political heart. Most of us had not seen Brussels before and we were surprised by its sparkling beauty. Secretly I had expected to see cold and stately buildings, people in suits with deadly-serious glances but, in reality, Brussels is a charming city with a rich history and a lively atmosphere. After having seen the Grande Place, Rue de Bouchers, Place Flagey and tons of chocolatiers showing off their chocolate in creative ways (chocolate hippos?) we stopped for some vlaamse friet. This gave us renewed strength and good soil for our next destination: Delirium Café. This bar is known for its lo(ooo)ng beer list and, of course, we wanted to grab this opportunity to extend our knowledge of this well-appreciated drink. Beer beyond your wildest dreams flowed from the taps, like cactus beer and spice beer which reminded us of Christmas. We enjoyed listening (and watching) a teenager brass band that had spontaneously dropped in and rocked the café with catchy tunes and a swarm of dancing fans. Brussels kept surprising me! Let’s say: we went to bed satisfied.

The coffee smell from Barroso’s desk: the European Commissionfloor5

The next day brought with it some serious business. After stuffing ourselves with pain au chocolats at the hotel breakfast, we visited the European Youth Forum: a platform for youth organisations throughout Europe. The forum represents and advocates for the rights, needs and interests of all young people in Europe by engaging and participating in both national and international initiatives. After the Youth Forum, and a quick lunch on the go, we visited the European Commission. I am not sure what we expected but probably some juicier insider information than the general information talk on the European Union that we got. The speaker was however intriguing and he was able to answer some questions. Also, I found it cool to be so close to where the magic happens, if you know what I mean. Secretly, I was quite impressed  by the EU’s political buildings, as if I could almost smell the coffee on Barroso’s desk, or as if I was just an instant away from important decision-making processes ready to determine my future (OK, let’s not exaggerate). For the first time, I started to think about a career with the EU. I have always neglected this option as I see myself as non-competitive, a bit weird, and overly chaotic, and for some reason this doesn’t rhyme with ‘EU career’. But well, who knows…? After the Commission we visited the Committee of the Regions, where we were warmly welcomed and informed extensively on the work of the CoR. In the evening we had a splendid dinner at a restaurant called Le Volle Gas, situated at Ixelles Elsene. We walked to most of our destinations, when we had the opportunity see lots of the city and, even better, to question each other about our future dreams, past experiences, opinions and knowledge of silly jokes.

Ceci, n’est pas une histoire: Lobby Planet EU

Early the next morning we visited Musée Magritte. Magritte, you must know from his famous “ceci n’est pas une pipe” written under a painting of a pipe. If you ever go to Brussels, don’t miss this one! Thereafter we had a meeting with Koen Roovers, a University Groningen alumnus and coordinator of an ALTER-EU project (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation) at CEO (Corporate Europe Observatory). Of this meeting I will tell you some more as it has opened my eyes to the reality of the EU decision-making processes in Brussels.floor

ALTER-EU consists of about 200 civil society groups, trade unions, academics and public affairs firms that campaign against the increasing influence of corporate lobbyists on the political agenda of Europe, the resulting loss of democracy in EU decision-making and the postponement, weakening, or blockage even, of urgently needed progress on social, environmental and consumer-protection reforms. One interesting phenomenon that ALTER-EU campaigns against is the ‘revolving door’, through which many EU officials go. This means that when they leave their EU job, they soon start working for corporations or lobby firms, often even in the same policy area. It also happens that lobbyists go through the revolving door and start working for the EU. As ALTER-EU itself states “When this happens, corporate groups gain inside-knowledge, vital contacts, and above all, powerful influence”’. An example of a fellow who took the revolving door is Mogens Peter Carl, who was Director-General at DG Environment until 2009 and, only six months later, became senior adviser to one of Brussels’ biggest lobby consultancies which, amongst others, represents a vehicle company. Well that just stinks! Don’t you think? ALTER-EU demands tough, new rules to block the revolving door, such as a ban of at least two years before EU staff can become lobbyists. ALTER-EU offered us a booklet called “Lobby Planet EU”, which shows a map of Brussels with all the lobby firms and large corporations marked on it. Just looking at it makes you think… Brussels really is a wasp’s nest!

Last minute surprise in El Parlamento Europeofloor3

On the same day we also visited the European Parliament. Unfortunately, the information talk was again not entirely adapted to the knowledge we already had on the EU and its Parliament, however we were pleasantly surprised when in the end a Dutch MEP’s personal assistant dropped in to give us some nice insider information on his job. After the visit I asked our supervisor (and ex-Euroculture student), James Leigh, whether he ever considered working for the EU. He answered by describing EU workers as ‘glorified slaves’. Enough said I guess.

At this point it was time to hurry to the train station, buy some last minute chocolates and get back to Groningen. I think we all felt tired, but satisfied. Indeed, we were much more knowledgeable about Brussels, the EU, and definitely each other.

Floor Boele van Hensbroek, Contributing writer

floorI am Floor, Dutch, and 25 years young/old. I studied interdisciplinary social sciences at Utrecht University before starting with Euroculture. I love travelling, dancing, art, theatre, documentaries, tasty food, classy wine and.. actually a lot of other things. I was born in the bush of Zambia with a bush of black curly hair, although now I’m blond as blond can be 🙂 I’m a cynical optimist, that looks for truth even though I believe that all truth is constructed.

Food vs. Life

ATKA ATUN | atka_brozek@yahoo.com

Since my pre-teens I’ve gone through obesity, bulimia, being overweight, being underweight, reaching my perfect BMI, and being overweight again. I guess I can honestly say that my relationship with food is long, complicated and sometimes toxic. Being a good Polish woman I still love food and will stay with it forever.

After a semester in Strasbourg, France, I came back home to discover that I had not only gained eight extra kilos but also, according to my doctor, was ten kilos overweight. Numbers are brutal, I can tell you, especially when your relationship with food seemed to be the perfect one. On that day, I promised myself to answer an eternal question: is it possible to have a good and healthy relationship with food without going crazy?

For some people, rules are simple: eating 4-5 times a day; eating fruit and vegetables 4-5 times a day; eating only seasonal food; quitting salt, simple sugars, pork, trans fats, processed foods and, yes, restaurants because you always have to know what you eat. You should not forget to drink at least 2 litres of mineral water every day, but never more than 3 or 4. I found myself in quite a situation while trying to ‘quit’ water. Apparently, my daily 6 litres is nowadays known as ‘aqua-holism’ and to put it simply: makes you look puffier and troubles your overwhelmed kidneys. Speaking of drinking, consumption of alcohol should be minimized to 200ml of wine per day for women and 300ml for men (unfortunately, days of abstinence do not count as an extra 200 or 300ml on a Saturday!). Other kinds of alcohol are not even considered as part of a healthy diet, which I find weird since the same amount of beer daily is a well-known medicine for purifying the kidneys.

I read all these rules and thought that a relationship like that must suck, and hard! First of all, no cuisine in the world can ever exist without salt. Secondly, eating 4 times a day, not to mention 5, is hard enough without being forced to eat 4 strawberries after each meal. Why? Because diet specialists also strengthen the fact that we should eat no more than 200g of fruit per day, split in fours or fives. Thirdly, no one ever made a good, even homemade, pizza on full grained flour. Believe me, I have tried and it was bad. Fourth, how can you study without eating out? I know some people are able to carry their homemade food around but not all of us have the time, energy or skills to prepare their meals as healthy take-out. Nevertheless, I myself am not a big fan of pork, trans-fats or processed foods which are obviously dangerous to our health, so these rules are do-able for me.

But let’s go back to my semester in Strasbourg. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t plan to indulge myself in France. I love cooking and the amount of products, cook books, and cuisines in Alsace is surreal in comparison to Kraków; and something I had to take advantage of. I was not scared since I had read a fabulous bestselling book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano, and knew the nation’s secrets to maintaining a good figure. These rules can be summarized as follows: eat only three times a day, eat as tiny portions as possible (seriously, they can be really good as miniature meals), do not eat junk food, drink a lot of water and no more than two glasses of wine as your only alcohol and never without food. To me, it sounded like enjoying life!

But in Strasbourg there are macaroons…and lots of them. Every single pastry shop has its own secret flavours and you can choose between rose, mint, white and dark chocolate, blackberry, honey and so on. Not to mention the classic – Pierre Herme – that you can visit at Galeries Lafayette that sells ketchup, truffles, fois gras and other crazy macaroon flavours (2,90euro/piece) that seriously can change your views on life itself. Amazing Christian offers all sorts of flavours and sizes, although in that place it is best to try their hand-made chocolates. Naegel, that you will fall in love with after trying its famous Alsatian tartlette with pork, also offers some mind-blowing king-size macaroons (loving their cassis and rose giants). So it goes, like Kurt Vonnegut likes to say, all for “doing it like French women do – enjoy and be skinny”.

Three months after coming back home overweight, I have tried to be: indifferent towards my figure; to be a non-social, carrot-licking zombie chasing vegetables and fruit  5 times a day (with nowhere to go but Heaven); and finally, I have tried to be both. Once or twice a week I have some dark chocolate with earl grey leaves, a family bag of salty chips or a pack of salty sunflower seeds – because I love it. Now, I only add salt when it’s necessary and try using other spices to pump up the flavours. Two glasses of wine seem reasonable, because it’s good to be up the next day. When I have money I go to have some food at my favourite French bistro. After a month of being on both sides of the force I have lost three kilos.

Is my relationship with food perfect? No. Nevertheless, it’s the only one I can live with without going crazy and most of all – the only one that makes me human.

ATKA ATUN, Literature Editor

Atka is from Poland and completed her studies in linguistics with a specialization in intercultural communication. She has studied in Krakow,
Paris, and Strasbourg, and is currently doing a research track in Japan. Atka has been researching Japanese literature and the influence of minority cuisines on those of ‘host’ countries. She carries her dog around wherever she goes, and eats way too much weird food.