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A note on nerves

FT

My usual morning view at a favorite nearby park.

Three weeks ago, I walked into the office of the Financial Times Brussels bureau for the first time.

Dressed in my best business-profesh attire, I rang the door bell to one of the many row-houses found across from a beautiful park and the Belgium Royal Palace. It was a little after 9 a.m., and I swayed back and forth in the cool Brussels air to the rhythm of my screaming nerves. “What if I’m late?” “Did I bring an extra pen?” “I definitely shouldn’t have had that last cup of coffee.”

Countless, insignificant thoughts and questions rattled around inside until someone finally opened the door. A woman juggling an espresso and a dust pan looked down at me, her naturally cheery faced mixed with confusion. “You are…,” she asks with an accent I can’t yet place.

I give her a nervous line about being the new intern, and she quickly ushers me into a newsroom far different than any I’ve stepped into before. She introduces herself as Catalina, the housekeeper of the FT office for the past decade.

“Darling,” she says in what I learn is a Romanian accent, “I’m going to go make you some coffee. Do you know you’re here an hour early?”

Catalina’s warmth was a beautiful surprise-start to my internship this semester with the Financial Times Brussels bureau.

To say my learning curve going into this internship felt as deep as Greece’s debt cerca December 2009 would be an overstatement, but just barely. I met Catalina on the doorstep that Monday morning full of expectations and doubt — the unhealthy combo that accompanies any major change. I think the fear I most heavily carried up the steps and to my corner desk was the fear of looking foolish — whether it be for arriving late (or in actuality massively early), struggling to understand austerity or failing to articulate the difference between the European Council and the Council of European Union (let’s get a little more creative with names, people).

Over the past three weeks, of course, there have been times when I felt foolish. But so far I haven’t been asked to simplify a very convoluted EU system or solve the debt crisis, so I haven’t looked nearly as foolish as my irrational fears would have led me to believe. What I have been asked to do is play a small part in one of the most accurate, longest-standing newspapers in Europe and in the world. And I’m finding more and more that feeling foolish is directly correlated with learning, and continually learning is the whole goal of becoming a good journalist, isn’t it?

My desk is a front-row seat to how a paper of this weight and responsibility thrives. In offices that were long ago living rooms and bedrooms, FT journalists have been recording European (and world) history here for the last 40 years.

I still get to the office anywhere from an hour to 30 minutes early, but now it’s on purpose. I check in with Catalina before she leaves and ask her how her family in the states are doing. I make an espresso downstairs before I grab the day’s copy of the FT, sit down at my desk and open up my pink textbook.

The nerves are still there – I feel them every time I walk into an EU press conference or mess up a dial on my Ph.D-required desk phone. But what I feel now – more than my own self-doubts or insecurities – is an insatiable excitement to learn everything I can from a paper I respect more and more everyday. And that’s far more fun than feeling nervous.

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Land of beer, waffles and comics

We’re three weeks in, and I know I still walk like a tourist – self-doubting, struggling to find street signs and metro terminals.

But we’re three weeks in, and slowly but surely, I’m learning the shy but sweet Belgian culture.

It’s not flashy like Paris, proper like London or spicy like Barcelona. Brussels has too many personalities to fit a category, and all of them are subtle.

I’ve only met one Belgian who was born and raised in Brussels; he is an 80-year-old fellow Sunday market goer. I never caught his name, but he said he’s seen the capital of Belgian, and apparently Europe, change a lot over the past eight decades. 

But he said three things have remained constant, unwavering Brussels pillars: beer, waffles and comics.

I’ve gotten a taste of Belgians’ love for these three necessities over the past few weeks. It’s hard to find a bar in town that doesn’t serve ten or so Belgian beers, and if you’re lucky, a trappist beer will always be on tap. Last weekend was a crowded, crazy beer festival held at the Grand Place. There were twenty too many shouting Canadians for us, so we made our own beer festival at one of the city’s best known bars, Delirium. After tasting the incredibly diverse brews, it’s easy to see why Belgians treat their beer with as much affection as a family member.

Also dear to the heart of any Belgian, or let’s be real and say any Brussels tourist, are waffles. Brussels and Liege waffles are generally hailed as the best around, through apparently they’re very different. I can’t speak to the Liege waffles yet, but I can tell you Brussels waffles are unlike any I’ve had. They’re also diabetes waiting to happen. Prepared with a yeast-leavened batter, these gems are lighter, thicker and more crispy than the Plaza 900 waffles I grew accustomed to freshman year. People more knowledgable than I have weighed in on the best waffles in Brussels, and by the time I leave, I’ll hopefully have tried most all.

Hopping on the comics strip bandwagon was a little harder for me, mainly because they’re not something you generally put in your belly. After witnessing the Brussels Comics Fest last weekend, however, I’ve got to say the level of cartoon-dedication here is impressive. A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day styled balloon parade in the morning gave way to a spectacular lights show at night, both of which celebrated the history of comics in Brussels. As a TinTin fan growing up (he was a journalist, you know), it was fun to see a celebration of something so classically Belgian.

I’m far from a Brussels native (nearly 60 percent of those in Brussels are foreigners, so at least I’m not alone), but I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m a fan of the three things my 80-year-old, Brussels-born friend said were most classically Brussels: beer, waffles and comics.

“Life in the former European Union”

eumus23

Fantastic news. I can stop stressing about understanding and reporting on the European Union. Really I should just tell the Brussels Financial Times bureau we can start covering the capital of beer and chocolate rather than the capital of Europe, because it’s all going to collapse five years.

At least, that’s what Friends of a Reunited Europe would have you believe.

This museum (loosely called) was organized by the Royal Flemish Theatre and can be found just a few streets from the heartbeat of the European Commission. The exhibition transports you to year 2063.

The brilliantly dusty and drab museum displays “the final years of the long peace,” before the EU dissolved into chaos due to its own bureaucracy and inadequacies.

Though unification brought peace following the two bloody European Civil Wars, “the ensuing prosperity and stability lulled Europe to sleep,” according to a pamphlet written in both English and Esperanto and handed to every visitor before entering into an eerily lit hallway to the future.

But before we get there, let’s take a look at the EU as it stands in September 2013.

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The Friends of a Reunited Europe ask their visitors to reflect on a time in Europe when a single currency was used, boundary lines evaporated and “when it came to climate summits and international conflict resolution, Europe had to content itself with a place along the side-lines.” Striking a chord yet?

Highlights from the multistoried exhibit include the EU’s  “Acquis Communautaire” — or body of European law — which grew to about 311,000 pages by 2017, according to the Friends of a Reunited Europe. All 311,000 pages are on display, stacking from the first floor to the fourth. Also on display is the now extinct euro, old EU propaganda and two maps that illustrate how extremism and regional separatism grew into the kill shots that derailed the European Project in 2018.

Perhaps most powerful is the last room of the exhibit. After your eyes adjust to the sheer darkness, you’ll see a window on the far right, illuminating a series of print paper. In both English and Esperanto rests a real-life letter from exhibition creator and visionary Thomas Bellinck to a friend who committed suicide after bankruptcy.

At first glance, it may seem Bellinck is overly pessimistic and critical of both the current and future EU. Yet, a theme carried from dusty room to dusty room is the “Fear of Loss,” which Bellinck nicknamed the last room in the exhibit. Much more can be found in any of the great articles written about Bellinck and his creation. Whether in an interview or speaking with patrons in the bar on the top level of the museum, Bellinck stresses the exhibit is very critical but ultimately is a pro-European exhibition.

What stayed with me the most is that the problems within the current EU Bellinck highlights with his dark humor are very real and very dangerous to the health of the European Project. The further I dig into the convoluted system that is the EU for my internship, the more I’m taken aback at how much of an experiment it is. Much like the building layout of the European quarter, there’s no clear organization or finish line to the Project. Bellinck says the collapse of the EU is not science-fiction, and is a worst case scenario that is becoming more and more possible every day.

I take comfort, maybe naively, in the fact I’m working with and learning from journalists who are working to illuminate the issues in the EU that caught Bellinck’s creative and critical eye. Perhaps with enough voices and opinions, the European experiment will still be standing strong in it’s egg-shaped headquarters come 2018. And if not, you’ll find me on the fourth floor of a museum, toasting the former European Union.

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