Disclaimer: Vu is on travels in Europe with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship and writing quality, general coherence, and spelling and grammar, may be affected by Belgian beer.
Day 5: I just returned to my hotel in Brussels after a fun and intense day that spanned from 8am this morning to 11:30pm. So far, Brussels has been an impressive city with beautiful architecture, friendly people, environmental conscientiousness, and a vibrant energy. Really, the only thing I can complain about is the toilet paper. Due to the city’s green-focus, the toilet paper at this very nice hotel is like no other, combining the softness of sawdust with the smoothness of sandpaper.
I’ll talk more about Brussels in a minute, but first I wanted to recapture the intense last few days. Day 2, DC, had us and the European fellows visit American University for a lecture on American culture from an amazing professor, who basically said that we in the US are rallied around the verb “to do.” We focus on actions. This is why when we first meet someone, we ask them right away what they do. We focus on individual accomplishments and earned status. We hate asking for charity, and that’s why we say things like “Can I borrow a cigarette?” On the opposite end of the spectrum are cultures rallied around the verb “to be,” where relationships, group accomplishments, and ascribed status take precedence over the individuals’ actions and merits. Europe, with its long history of royal families, fall further along on that end.
“The US has never experienced the intensity of war like other countries,” he continued, moving on to dissect the history of the US and its strengths and weaknesses. On the way out of the lecture and during lunch I talked with other European fellows and learned of the horrific things their families had to endure. “The Germans came and destroyed 70% of Warsaw,” said one, “everyone on my mother’s side of the family was killed. Then the Soviets came…”
The flight was fine, except for the few instances of strong turbulence that made me very glad I had written a letter to my baby son just in case I died unexpectedly. We arrived in cold and overcast Brussels at 8am.“You cannot fall asleep,” said the Marshall program staff, “we booked a walking tour of the City and then lunch. You have to stay awake or you will be severely jetlagged.”
So the band of 15 ragged, exhausted fellows and our tour guides wandered the City, red-eyed and disheveled, looking like zombies or government workers affected by the shutdown. Luckily, Brussels is beautiful and full of life and chocolates and beer. We quickly perked up, seeing the splendor of the royal palace and the beautiful mall with its cathredral-heighted ceiling. All of a sudden it hit me that I was in Europe, with its ancient history and buildings that have witnessed thousands of years of strife and sorrows and rebirth. These beautiful buildings are a testament to humankind’s resilience and drive to survive and build and rebuild.
I was lost in these thoughts, and then I looked around and realized I had lost my group. I was lost in Brussels! I ran ahead to see if I could catch up, but they were nowhere to be found. My phone had died, so I couldn’t call anyone, and there are no pay phones anywhere. For the next 45 minutes I wandered the city, trying to find a phone, talking to people who looked friendly. Most people here speak French, so I tried to speak the limited French I had, and it is pretty awful, despite six years of studies. For some reason, probably jetlag, random useless French words kept appearing in my head. “Parlez-vous poisson,” I wanted to say, “je veux danser dans une biblioteque.” Do you speak fish? I want to dance in a library.
Getting lost was actually extremely enjoyable. Adrenaline kicked in, and I was focused, and the French came back. Brussels was beautiful, so full of colors and interesting shops. I was able to explain to a lady that I had lost my group and that I needed to borrow her phone. She was skeptical, but softened as I looked at her with these puppy-dog eyes, which would probably have been more effective if they hadn’t been blood red and twitching uncontrollably.
No response when I called the staff. I took a taxi to the restaurant, hoping that they would keep their schedule and head there also. No one was there, but I asked someone in French what time it was, and I was ten minutes early. I waited, and the group showed up. Everyone clapped. Apparently, one of the staff had come back and shouted my name at the mall. Others were freaking out. “We thought you might have been kidnapped. Or passed out in the alley from lack of vegan food…”
Lunch was done at 3:30, and we tried to power through to at least 8pm to avoid jetlag. So of course, we went out for beers, because nothing is better at warding off jetlag than to drink beer. The Belgians are crazy about their beer, and a whole culture has developed around it. There are over 2000 types of beer here, or so I’ve heard, and you know what, all of the beers here kick our beers’ butts. I’ve never been a fan of beer, but I’ve really liked the ones here.
Two bars later, we came home at 9:30pm and promptly crashed, proud of having achieved our mission of staying awake for 35 consecutive hours. Today we woke up early and toured the small and charming city of Bruges, famous for its bridges and well-preserved ancient buildings. We had dinner with the editor of The Guardian newspaper and more European alums, where I learned of the minority voice to dismantle the European Union and other challenges the EU is facing. A fellow from Hungary told me of the struggle his country is facing—the high unemployment rate, the migration of skilled people out of the country, the discrimination against the Roma, and the insane country leader. Hungary has suffered greatly from the occupations of the Germans and the Soviets. “Both my grandfathers died in the War,” he said, “and my mother and her relatives were sent to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Some survived. Not many.”
I have to go to bed. It has been an illuminating trip so far. Tomorrow, we visit the European Union as well as NATO headquarters to learn about collective security and immigrant integration. It’ll be another 8am to 11pm day, so I better down my to-go beer and go to sleep.