ERASMUS for grown-ups

It is the tenth and final day of a summer school I have been doing in Brussels, and time to consolidate my learning. Daily lectures on the EU have been in turn informative and dull, but have at least been enough to neutralise some Euroscepticism. I have always been pro-Europe myself, least of all because without the EU, the ERASMUS program wouldn’t exist! Therefore I would never have gone to live in Switzerland! Therefore this blog would never exist!! However what I walk away with most is an

impression of Brussels life. Specifically, Brussels expat life. I have a British friend who has been living and working in Brussels for the last two years, and thanks to him I have had the chance to get a taste of life (at least his social life) here in Bruxelles. And some things strike me as surprisingly familiar…

We call it the “Eurobubble”. It is the highly insular community of Europeans who come to work in Brussels. Many are interns, some work for the EU institutions, NGOs, some (like my friend) for international businesses. People are typically in their twenties, ambitious, and keen networkers. It is a highly diverse, multilingual, young and energetic environment. See what I’m getting at here? Drinking at Place de Luxembourg (the square right in front of the European parliament) on a Thursday night is practically a compulsory weekly event for sociable expat workers. Every Thursday after work all the bars are packed out and (on the rare occasion that the weather is good, as it has been during my stay) the grassed square covered with a carpet of young professionals in their work clothes, enjoying some good Belgian beer after a long day on the grind. The atmosphere is quite something, and with all the European nationalities represented, it might be another Exchange party; just with a higher average age and smarter clothes, more talk of trade agreements and less talk of coursework. If people are talking shop.

Yet this select, highly-educated and affluent community is more or less completely removed from Belgium itself. I was quite excited to meet some real-life Belgians (two Flamands) for the first and last time in a bar last weekend. I have met many Spanish people (who seem to be very highly represented, at least in my friend’s social circle), and a number of other European nationalities, but the Eurobubble is just that – a bubble, which happens to be located in Brussels.

I find Belgium itself to be a strange country, with a serious identity crisis. French, Flemish (Dutch) and German are all official languages, with Flemish in the north, French in the south and German in a small part to the east. The Brussels region is located in the Flemish region, but is officially bilingual, though in practice Brussels itself is primarily French-speaking. Sounds a bit like Switzerland in fact, with its linguistic regions. Yet Switzerland is a country at peace (more or less) with its multiple languages, and most importantly, a country unified by a strong Swiss identity. Whether French-, German- or Italian-speaking, whatever the canton, the Swiss are primarily SWISS; and darned proud of it too! The Swiss flag adorns every possible public space in every region, reinforcing the national identity. The government somehow manages to muddle along peaceably, and the entire nation revels in its wealth, neutrality and Swiss-ness. The linguistic divide runs very deep in Belgium and Belgians are at constant loggerheads, with the government previously collapsing multiple times and a ginormous linguistic chip on its shoulder. I, aware of the language tensions and unable to speak Dutch, was careful to use English, not French, when visiting the Flemish town Ghent – not so a French-speaking friend who learned the hard way via an extremely offended/offensive Flemish waiter.

Yet in the multilingual expat community, these are not primary concerns. Languages are nevertheless a big thing, with people still undergoing language training well into their careers, to help said careers along. I have been basking in the warm glow of people commenting on how “nice” my English accent is; in the Eurobubble, hearing “International English” (a weird breed of grammatically dubious English with an American twang) is far more common than hearing a native speaker. I, ironically, have not actually met many French speakers, but have had ample opportunity to show off the few words and phrases I know in Spanish, Greek and Portuguese, to the delight (largely disproportionate to my ineptitude) of the native speakers at whom I have spouted them.

It has been such a delight to find myself thrown once again into the European melting pot; Brussels feels almost like the natural progression of exchange, ERASMUS take two: a few years later. I do not know if my career will bring me back to Brussels but if it does I think I would find myself feeling very much at home in the Eurobubble. Just need to make sure not to piss off any locals.

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One thought on “ERASMUS for grown-ups

  1. In the spirit of good debate, I’d dispute the “insularity”. I’d say it’s the most open community I’ve been part of. I mean, we’re happy to make friends with any newbie from any country and, as you say, speak languages and have travelled. We even have a couple of Belgians in our group whom unfortunately you didn’t get to meet. I’d say the divide is down to the fact that young Bruxellois stick to their social circles from school and university, and don’t explore the international side of Brussels. E.g. my Belgian colleague (our age) said that when she was working for the European Commission, she found it impossible to merge her expat and Belgian friend groups due to language and culture clashes. To a “Eurobubbler” that’s insane! Anyway, the rest I completely agree with. Apart from the good beer and smell of waffles in the air, life is very un-Belgian.

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